By Steve Terrell

There will be no straight-party voting option this year in New Mexico.

The state Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled in favor of a petition by the state Republican and Libertarian parties and others arguing that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver does not have the power to put straight-party voting back on ballots without legislative approval.

The court didn't buy Toulouse Oliver's argument that the secretary of state's power to decide the form of the ballot includes resurrecting the straight-ticket option.

"Did the Legislature intend to delegate its decision-making authority over straight-party voting to the secretary of state?" Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said when announcing the high court's decision. "The answer to this question is no."

Opponents of straight-party voting -- which allows a voter to select candidates in all races at once by choosing a party of choice -- have claimed Toulouse Oliver was trying to revive the practice to help Democratic candidates, including herself. The argument is that candidates in down-ballot races who aren't Democrats will suffer if enough voters choose to vote straight Democratic.

More voters in New Mexico are registered with the Democratic Party than with any other.

After the hearing, Toulouse Oliver said she was disappointed in the decision but glad the Supreme Court cleared up the issue.

"I truly believe that [the straight-ticket option] makes voting more accessible to people," she told reporters.

Toulouse Oliver, who is running for a four-year term, said she will continue to work toward making state elections more secure and pushing legislation on such issues as allowing independents to vote in primaries, same-day voter registration and possibly voting at home.

But asked whether she'll push legislation to re-establish straight-party voting, she said she doesn't know whether the issue will stay on her agenda.

Gavin Clarkson, Toulouse Oliver's Republican opponent in the secretary of state's race, called Toulouse Oliver a "partisan Democrat" after the hearing and said her argument about the straight-party issue "doesn't pass the giggle test."

The court's decision "was a win for all New Mexicans regardless of party or those with no party," Clarkson said.

Toulouse Oliver moved to restore the straight-party voting option last month. That option for voters had been part of the law until 2001, when the state Legislature passed House Bill 931, which dealt with electronic voting machines.

The bill repealed a section of the state Election Code dealing with technical requirements for old lever-operated voting machines -- everything from the construction materials and workmanship to the machine's ability to print out voting results. The bill didn't mention the phrase "straight-party voting."

Still, the state kept straight-party voting for 10 years -- without major public outcry from Republicans or others -- after HB 931 became law.

In 2011, when Dianna Duran became secretary of state -- the first Republican to hold that position in decades -- she got rid of the straight-party option.

There was discussion during Wednesday's hearing about Toulouse Oliver's contention that even though the Legislature in 2001 struck language requiring the straight-party option, the secretary of state retained power over the form of the ballot.

Nakamura said there's a difference between "form" and "substance" -- and that the straight-ticket issue was a matter of substance.

"What's clear is that there is a lot of uncertainty about what the Legislature was trying to accomplish," Nakamura said.

She pointed out that in recent years, there have been nine unsuccessful attempts by lawmakers to either prohibit or authorize straight-party voting.

"If the secretary of state wants to make law," Nakamura said, "she should resign and run for the Legislature."

Nakamura asked Toulouse Oliver's attorney, Jane Yohalem, whether the secretary of state had the power to to establish a straight yes-or-no option for constitutional amendments, bond issues or judicial retention.

"We could reduce the ballot to four questions," the chief justice said.

The national trend in recent years among states is to do away with straight-party voting. Only nine states allow it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is Unite New Mexico, a group backing independent legislative candidates on the ballot -- namely Jarrett Applewhite, who is running against state Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, in District 50, and former state Rep. Treciafaye "Tweeti" Blancett of Eagle Nest, who is running against Democrat Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde for retiring Rep. Nick Salazar's seat in District 40.

Other plaintiffs are Heather Nordquist, a Democrat running as a write-in candidate against Democratic nominee Andrea Romero for the state House District 46 seat in Santa Fe County, and the Elect Liberty PAC, a Libertarian political action committee supporting former Gov. Gary Johnson, who is trying to defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and GOP Senate candidate Mick Rich.

(c)2018 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)