A famous Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, once said, “All Politics is Local.” For decades candidates seeking the votes of their neighbors or residents of the surrounding area took it as gospel. A bridge here, a speed bump there was more important than the nuances of the remote Israeli-Palestinian problem. And sometimes local issues about taxes or pollution had a way of percolating up from the grassroots to Washington. But now, local politics are imitating the national scene with its divisive wedge issues and bitter partisan warfare.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy (MRGCD) Board’s recent election is a case in point. The MRGCD is arguably the lowest level of local government—but a recent attempt by the losing candidate to have the election results thrown out by the governing board mirrors the larger national debate on voting rights.
The results of the June election for Board positions 3 & 4 were landslides, with the incumbents Karen Dunning and Joaquin Baca winning with 75% of the vote in what is typically an unknown, low-turnout election held at an odd time, in a non-election year. The loser complained that the early votes should be thrown out, and not counted in the total because they did not contain his nickname, “Scooter.” The ballots did contain his legal name, but a clerk had promised him that his nickname would also appear. Up until the last day of early voting it did not. For that reason, the loser demanded that the approximately 950 early votes be jettisoned, although none had complained that they could not find the candidate they wished to vote for. The results would not have changed. The loser would still lose, and the winner would still win. But in the process, the about half the voters would have their votes tossed out. They would be, in effect, disenfranchised after the fact.
Remarkably, the MRGCD’s lawyer wanted to do just that. If her recommendation had been taken, the board would have simply overriden the will of the voters, coming up with a new total that would stand in the history books as the official results. All the early voters would have been disenfranchised. We are all fortunate that the District’s board members decided not to tamper with the results at the behest of the loser.
Voters in other states are not so fortunate. In the wake of the 2020 election, and the failure of the Jan. 6 uprising to overturn the results by force, state legislatures in some states are attempting to interfere with election administration and grant themselves—or their appointees– the power to overturn elections.
The most dangerous bills allow legislatures to assume the responsibility for election administration themselves and reject the decisions of independent Secretaries of State and non-partisan officials. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan law and policy institute, Georgia has already given the legislature control of the state election board and granted it broad powers to investigate and suspend local election officials like the Brad Raffensperger, who famously stood up for the accuracy of the vote count in that state. In Arkansas the partisan State Board of Election Commissioners now oversees election results and can correct them at will. In Texas, election administrators could face criminal penalties for doing their job if SB 7 is passed; in Iowa an election official who fails to perform list maintenance duties would face up to two years in jail under a pending bill.
These laws threaten the foundation of democracy—neutral elections, fairly administered. If governing bodies can reverse the course of a free election, as the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy Board was asked to do at the local level, we can no longer claim to be a democracy—here in New Mexico or in any state.
Thankfully, the entire Conservancy Board voted against the challenge. We owe them a debt of gratitude—for democracy’s sake.
Dede Feldman works with Common Cause New Mexico. Common Cause is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. We work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process. For more information contact Dede Feldman at 505-220-5958 or email@example.com.