Inside the Capitol

Thursday, August 21, 2008

8-25 State Election Code Badly in Need of Fix

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- The New Mexico Supreme Court has allowed Lincoln County sheriff candidate Steve Sederwall onto the November general election ballot even though he did not submit the required number of petition signatures.
The high court remained silent, however, about whether all the other county candidates in the state should have filed nominating petitions.
This strange situation arose when Sederwall decided last spring to run as an independent candidate for county sheriff. He contacted the county clerk's office and the secretary of state's office and was told all he had to do was fill out the necessary papers and pay a $50 filing fee.
Sederwall asked about the necessity of filing petition signatures and was told it wouldn't be necessary. But on filing day, the county clerk refused to accept his candidacy without petition signatures.
At that point, Sederwall began researching the law and determined that he did need to have signatures. He also determined that all other county candidates in the state also needed to collect nominating petition signatures.
So Sederwall took his case to court. He lost at the district court level and appealed it to the state Supreme Court. Many who were watching Sederwall's case saw this as an opportunity to determine whether all county candidates need petition signatures because a state court decision applies statewide.
But the court didn't address that part of the issue. From questions asked by the three-judge panel, it appeared to this observer that the court might be disposed toward a feeling that under the current vague election code all county candidates may likely need petition signatures.
Without a suit directly on that point, the court is not going to directly decide the petition issue. But if the state is to avoid a possibly very messy suit in the future, it will be wise for the secretary of state's office, along with the attorney general, the governor's office and legislative staff to straighten out the election code.
From oral arguments made by the attorneys for Sederwall, the attorney general's office and Lincoln County, the election code is full of inconsistencies and contradictions, especially involving the need for county candidates to obtain petition signatures.
The eagerness of Lincoln County to keep Sederwall off the ballot is worthy of note. The secretary of state's office chose not to take a side in the issue and to accept whatever the court's ruling might be. And the attorney general's office recommended putting Sederwall on the ballot.
Early during the oral arguments on Aug. 20, Justice Patricio Serna, who presided over the hearing, indicated the court's historic tendency to put people on the ballot whenever possible.
Justice Petra Maes indicated a feeling that there should be some recourse for persons who receive incorrect advice from public officials. And that is what the court did. Sederwall was placed on the ballot pending the collection of 203 valid signatures by Aug. 22.
Conversations with those attending their first state Supreme Court session revealed their pleasure with the pleasant demeanor of the court. Some had expected a stern and formal proceeding. But Justices Serna, Maes and Richard Bosson were gracious and cordial.
This column has spoken before about the surprise of citizens attending a legislative committee hearing for the first time and being impressed by the polite manner with which the audience and those providing testimony are treated.
The general tendency of most people is to make light of elected officials, but very few are the egomaniacs that many anticipate them to be. I also can say from experiences in other states and at the national level that New Mexicans are basically friendlier people.
It is amazing how a change in the election code, made in 1996, could escape the attention of three secretaries of state, scores of county clerks and hundreds of candidates during the last 12 years. It is long past time to clarify the election code.
MON, 8-25-08

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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