Faced with a decision about whether to enforce the law and possibly end the legislative careers of Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings and others, the N.M. Supreme Court instead said Tuesday that the law doesn’t really mean what it says.
If the two-party system that controls our government erred on the side of ballot access for minor parties and independents, I’d be more forgiving of the mistake several legislative incumbents and other Democrats and Republicans made this year that could have ended their campaigns.
But the reality is that, in New Mexico and across America, Democrats and Republicans have passed and interpreted laws in ways that make it more difficult for anyone who isn’t a Democrat or Republican to participate in our political process. That’s not fair.
And in New Mexico, we force those taxpaying citizens – who make up 20 percent of the electorate – to help pay for our Democratic and Republican primaries but don’t let them participate. Also not fair.
So I couldn’t help but chuckle when a handful of Democratic and Republican legislators, including Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, left the numbers of the districts they were seeking to represent off nominating petitions a year after they passed a law requiring them and other candidates to include such numbers or face disqualification.
True to form, after the N.M. Supreme Court decided Tuesday to let him and others stay on the ballot, Jennings told Capitol Report New Mexico what was embarrassing wasn’t his flub, but the fact that no synopsis of the 2011 bill or “the things that we had to study this law” listed the new requirement as a “substantive change.”
When someone has been in office so long (33 years for Jennings) that he thinks he doesn’t need to read the 2012 candidate guide to see if there are any changes in the law, and when he blames the bill summary for being inadequate instead of recognizing that a system that doesn’t give him time to read bills is broken, he illustrates arguments in favor of enacting term limits.
They should have known
The new requirement is made clear in this year’s candidate guide, on pages 23 and 24:
“The following information shall be listed in the appropriate space at the top of the nominating petition before the petition has been signed by any voter: the party affiliation of voters signing the petition, the candidate’s name, the candidate’s address, the candidate’s county of residence and the office sought by the candidate, which shall include the district or division of the office sought, if applicable (emphasis here and below is mine). Signatures on a page will not be counted by the filing office at the time the petition is filed if all general information and candidate information in the top one-third of each page has not been completely filled in prior to circulation.”
If that somehow left any doubt, the law is even clearer:
“The following information shall be listed in the appropriate space at the top of the nominating petition before the petition has been signed by any voter: the party affiliation of voters signing the petition, the candidate’s name, the candidate’s address, the candidate’s county of residence and the office sought by the candidate, which shall include the district or division of the office sought, if applicable. A nominating petition, including all signatures on the petition page, shall be invalid if any of the preceding information is not listed before the petition is signed by a voter or if any of the preceding information is altered.”
Those who didn’t know about the new requirement have no one to blame but themselves, as demonstrated by the fact that almost all candidates who filed to run in the primary did include the district or division number of the office they’re seeking on their petitions.
Treating independents, minor parties differently
I can understand the temptation to say such screw-ups should not be fatal to campaigns, that the penalty is overly harsh, that it disenfranchises people who signed those candidates’ petitions.
If the system had a history of showing similar grace when it came to independents and minor parties, I’d buy those arguments.
But the system errs on the side of keeping candidates off the ballot when it comes to minor parties and independents. That’s done to protect the power of the two major parties.
For example, the state requires two petitions before minor party candidates can be placed on the ballot. Then-Rep. Brian Moore, R-Clayton, proposed changing the requirement to only one petition for minor parties in 2007, and had the support of the ACLU.
Democrats killed the bill. A couple of rare access-favoring Republicans defended it, but in general the GOP didn’t like it any more than Democrats.
Minor parties haven’t had any more success in the courts in getting rid of that law. And a current lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Constitution and Green parties seeking to move the deadline for minor parties to submit signatures to qualify as a party, to give them more time to qualify for the ballot, is likely to go nowhere.
Court says the law doesn’t mean what it says
But when the candidacies of Democrats and Republicans are at stake, mountains move to keep them on the ballot. The new petition law is not ambiguous, regardless of what anyone claims. It says candidates have to list the district or division number of the office they’re seeking, if one exists, before they get people to sign their petitions. If they don’t, those petitions are disqualified.
The law was intended to ensure that people signing petitions could be certain they lived in the districts listed on the petitions. That, in theory, would help candidates do a better job of collecting valid signatures.
Some argue that the law is stupid or unnecessary. Some claim it’s unfair. Some say it’s time to get rid of the entire petition process.
But for now, it’s the law. And the Supreme Court, faced with a decision about whether to enforce the law and possibly end the legislative careers of Jennings and others, instead said the law doesn’t really mean what it says.
The two-party system protected itself once again.