Inside the Capitol

Thursday, November 15, 2007

11-19 Could Democrats Find Themselves With No Candidates?


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- As predicted, politicians throughout the state are rushing to take advantage of New Mexico's four open congressional seats.

   But voters will not have to wade through a ballot full of unfamiliar names on election day. Preprimary nominating conventions held by each party next March will whittle the hopefuls down to about three in the crowded races.

      Candidates must receive at least 20 percent of their convention vote to get on the June primary ballot. Theoretically four, or even five, candidates could garner the required 20 percent but those chances range from unlikely to nearly impossible.

      Until this year, candidates not making the cut could secure additional nominating petition signatures and squeeze in on the bottom of the ballot.. But the 2007 Legislature eliminated that possibility.

      If a large number of candidates are still vying for a ballot spot next March, it could be possible that none of them will receive the required 20 percent.

      The situation is most likely to arise with Democrats in northern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District, but it could happen anywhere in either party. It would be a disaster in the north, where Democrats reign supreme, not to have a candidate make the ballot.

      The Legislature has time to change the rules in the 2008 short session before the preprimary conventions. But it would take a two-thirds majority to allow it to go into effect immediately.

   In the 2007 sessions both parties voted overwhelmingly to tighten access to the ballot. But this time, Republicans might not be so willing to loosen them again if it might mean a huge Democrat embarrassment.

   Complicating matters further, House Speaker Ben Lujan has told blogger Joe Monahan that he doesn't think legislation is needed. That has raised some eyebrows since Lujan's son, Ben Ray Lujan, a member of the Public Regulation Commission, will be one of the stronger candidates in that race.

   But Speaker Lujan's comment may not be motivated by favoritism so much as a belief that a messy legislative battle can probably be avoided.

   Several candidates are likely to eliminate themselves by the time of the convention. And it may be possible that the parties themselves can establish a rule for run-off elections among the top candidates.

   It isn't really necessary to get as many candidates on the ballot as possible. They are ranked according to the number of votes they receive at the convention and usually the candidate in the first position wins.

   I can't remember a single time that a candidate who got on the ballot by submitting extra petitions ever won a race. It mainly has been a face-saving opportunity.

   A candidate denied ballot access by a nominating convention could go to court and attempt to overturn the law. But why spend the money when the combination of prevailing in court and then winning with the voters is such an extremely long shot.

   The law on ballot access gets changed often. At one time, filing fees were high enough to discourage all but the most serious of candidates. Not surprisingly, it became a civil rights issue.

   It was replaced by a high amount of signatures, which were later lowered and combined with a preprimary nominating convention. The conventions have bounced in and out of the law. Actually they are a service to voters because they winnow the field for the ballot.

   The 1972 Democratic senatorial primary showed us what happens when there are no rules for ballot access. The seat was open as the result of Sen. Clinton Anderson's retirement, so 25 Democrats filed for the office. It was chaotic. The eventual winner of the seat was a Republican named Pete Domenici.

   Equally as interesting was the Democratic primary for the northern district House seat. A group of lawyers at the Bull Ring, next to the Capitol filed for their bar maid. Sparkle Plenty received 3,470 votes.

MON, 11-19-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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