Keep trying to reform school elections

New Mexico’s state constitution has handed us a real zinger. In 2014 a majority of us voted for an amendment to that constitution, but it didn’t get done. It turns out, the majority vote was not enough.

The amendment in question was to end isolated school board elections – isolated because the constitution says school elections must be held at different times from all other elections. The voters approved a change to allow school elections to be held together with other nonpartisan elections such as city elections.

This provision dates back to the days when women couldn’t vote in general elections – but they could vote in school elections, so the purpose of the provision was to allow women to vote. It’s been obsolete for decades, but we’ve been stuck with it.

At minimum, this restriction has caused a huge waste of money, as school districts, municipalities and various special districts (conservation districts, etc.) have had to go through all the rigmarole and expense of holding legally valid separate elections. At worst, it has reduced civic participation dramatically. Embarrassingly small numbers of voters have selected school board members, city council members and other local officials. There’s an argument to suggest the quality of candidates has been reduced by the poor voter participation.

We finally almost fixed it, thanks to the 2014 amendment, which had been sponsored by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D.–Albuquerque). But there’s another provision in the constitution that says a majority vote is not enough. That’s the zinger.

Part of Article XIX, Section 1, says the proposed amendment must: “be ratified by a vote of the people of this state in an election at which at least three-fourths of the electors voting on the amendment vote in favor of that amendment.”

So we might have to put it on the ballot again in 2016, which means it would have to be passed by the legislature again and then would have to be approved by three-quarters of those voting.

Ivey-Soto told me he’s willing to do it. But he’s trying an end run around this task.

He has gone to the New Mexico Supreme Court, asking it to overrule the supermajority requirement for this provision, and to find that the majority vote suffices to change the state constitution. The named plaintiff is the New Mexico League of Women Voters, with Ivey-Soto acting as the group’s attorney.

If the Supreme Court agrees with Ivey-Soto’s argument, and does so before the upcoming 30-day legislative session, we won’t need to make another pass through the tedious process of trying to get a supermajority.

The petition to the Supreme Court contains a few curious bits of history.

The supermajority provision in Article XIX applies to four specific sections of the state constitution, which, according to the petition, have become known as the “unamendable sections.”  Several attempts have been made to amend these sections, but even though the proposed amendments received solid majorities, that wasn’t enough.

The petition argues that the original stated purpose of the “unamendable” requirement was to prevent restricting the rights of voters, and the proposed school election amendment doesn’t do that, so the three-quarters majority should not be required.

The school election provision has been an albatross around New Mexico’s neck for decades, so let’s hope the court agrees with Ivey-Soto and rules that we can get rid of it. If not, and if Ivey-Soto can get the proposed amendment through the legislature again, we’ll have a big job in the 2016 election getting a supermajority to vote for the darn thing.


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