Regardless of how many people show up to vote in Tuesday’s Las Cruces municipal election, one thing will be certain — there’s a lot of work to do if we want to build a stronger culture of voting and civic participation in Doña Ana County and beyond.
Turnout in 2013, the last time the city council seats that are up for grabs Tuesday were on the ballot, was 8.19 percent. It’s possible turnout will be a little higher in this year’s election. Early voting concluded Saturday with 1,870 voters casting ballots thus far. That’s 3.2 percent of the 57,808 city residents who are eligible to vote in the election.
But turnout had been dropping for some time before Trump’s election — and was so dismal nationwide that a small spike isn’t necessarily something to celebrate. Even in Albuquerque, which last month saw the highest turnout for a mayoral election since 2001, 71 percent of eligible, registered voters didn’t bother to cast ballots.
Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling and his staff have spent months exploring what would help create a stronger voting culture in the southern New Mexico county. His office recently held a community forum to hear from people who don’t vote. One hurdle? People said “relying on campaigns as their source of information is ineffective and leaving people out of the process,” according to Krahling.
“We learned that people want unbiased information regarding the voting process,” he said.
Krahling and his staff also heard that schools “should be a central source for teaching the value of civic participation at an early age,” and that “it will take a grassroots effort by community partners to increase people participating in democracy.”
The need for clearer dissemination of information about the voting process has been apparent in this year’s municipal election, Krahling said. His office, the county clerk’s office, handles voter registration for all elections, including Tuesday’s city election. But the city clerk, not the county clerk, runs Las Cruces’ municipal election. And yet, Krahling said, the county clerk’s office has had “a lot of confused voters” thinking they are supposed to vote there. Even some media outlets have contacted his office, thinking it’s overseeing the election.
“So it’s clear to me that there’s a lot of confusion out there,” Krahling said.
While efforts by the League of Women Voters and candidate forums hosted by KRWG-TV help increase exposure, “the best way to get someone to vote is direct contact,” Krahling said. He suggested that government should directly contact eligible voters with information about candidates, and how and when they can vote.
“As long as we rely on campaigns to be the primary source of that direct contact, I don’t think we will see any significant shifts in turnout, because in local elections they have limited resources,” Krahling said.
Allex Luna has been leading an independent, nonpartisan effort in advance of Tuesday’s Las Cruces election to make direct contact with potential voters. He’s a community organizer with N.M. Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFé), which sends paid canvassers out to knock on doors and have conversations with potential voters.
CAFé approaches such conversations differently than many organizations that work to turn out voters. For CAFé, a nonprofit organization that can’t endorse candidates, it’s not about who wins elections. It’s about empowering the people who the elected officials work for to be engaged long-term.
“It’s about people creating accountability, and voting is a step in doing that,” said Luna, who worked on get-out-the-vote campaigns in California for the PICO National Network before joining CAFé and moving to Las Cruces just over a year ago.
While many get-out-the-vote organizations focus on ensuring that likely voters show up, Luna said CAFé focuses instead on talking to “regularly ignored voters” or people who don’t usually vote — such as people with criminal records or economic barriers that make finding the time to vote difficult.
And canvassers for CAFé have longer conversations with people who answer doors. Many groups are focused on telling people who to vote for and being on to the next door in two minutes. CAFé canvassers instead focus on “hearing people’s stories,” sharing why they believe voting is important and building relationships, Luna said. They aim for conversations that are 10-15 minutes, and sometimes longer.
That’s because long-term change, according to Luna, will require more than voting.
“Voting isn’t just a magic wand that says everything is going to be solved,” Luna said. “Voting is a step in a process of creating change. It’s about becoming civically active.”
A desire for building a more civically active population is why Krahling and his staff plan to hold additional meetings to hear why people don’t vote. “We want them to tell us how to increase their participation in local elections,” he said. “Anything else would be us making assumptions.”
It’s also why the county clerk’s office has been visiting area high schools to register young people to vote. And it’s why Krahling met in October with officials from the Las Cruces Public Schools and League of Women Voters about developing a civic participation program in grade school.
“Our vision is to have every graduating senior in LCPS knowledgeable in and committed to civic participation,” Krahling recently wrote on Facebook.
There’s no single answer to increasing voter turnout and civic participation, Krahling said, though there are important steps he believes must be taken. He’s pushed for consolidating the many small, local elections held each year into one — both to simplify the process for voters and increase efficiency. The governor vetoed legislation that would have consolidated such elections earlier this year.
But the proposal will likely be considered again by the Legislature. Consolidating elections would make it easier for the county clerk’s office to mail registered voters information about candidates and where and how to vote, using money saved by the efficiencies created in consolidation.
“This would help us get over a huge hurdle to getting everyone to vote in every election, but it wouldn’t by itself solve the problem,” Krahling said. Additional reforms like allowing same-day voter registration are important, he said, in addition to “working with schools, and community organizing to make lasting change.”
As for community organizing, Luna said CAFé’s canvassers have been talking with people in Las Cruces about the search for a new police chief, protecting the increase in the city’s minimum wage that CAFé successfully pushed for several years ago, and making the city more welcoming to immigrants.
People often tell canvassers they’re discouraged and not planning to vote in the city election, Luna said. Many don’t believe their votes matter, and some don’t even know there’s an election on Tuesday before CAFé talks with them.
But after conversations with canvassers, many say they feel encouraged and are more likely to vote.
“It’s a good start,” Luna said. “Encountering and building relationships is something we pride ourselves on as an organization.”