Oliver, Espinoza vie for NM Secretary of State
LAS CRUCES — The election for secretary of state was not scheduled for another two years, but the arrest and conviction of former officeholder Diana Duran on charges that she illegally siphoned money from her campaign fund has created the need for a race this year.
Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Bernalillo County clerk and Democratic candidate against Duran in 2014, and Republican Nora Espinoza, a five-term House member from Roswell, are vying for the position.
“I believe we’re at a crossroads in our nation,” Espinoza said. “Americans and New Mexicans have critical decisions to make about our future. And whatever path is chosen will be chosen at the ballot box.
“Voting integrity and protecting the vote is extremely important,” she added. “We know there are some questions in regard to voting fraud in the past years. We know there has been documented voting fraud. We’ve just got to be careful.”
While Espinoza said voter security was her top priority, for Oliver it was access and participation.
“Contrary to my opponent, I don’t believe election integrity and access to the ballot box are mutually exclusive,” she said. “We can have widespread access to the ballot box, we can streamline the voter registration process, we can have same-day voter registration while at the same time ensuring the integrity of the system.
“We can only have a healthy democracy when we have as full of voter participation as possible. So, that is sort of the North star with regard to the work that I do with voter participation.”
Those different philosophies are apparent in the candidates’ views on voter ID. New Mexico law does not require voters to show a photo ID at the polls, which Espinoza said is needed to ensure integrity.
“The Democrats oppose voter ID; why, I don’t know,” she said. “I know they say it discriminates against minorities, and that is one of the issues that really motivated me. I find that extremely offensive, that because you’re a minority, or this or that, you don’t have the ability to get a photo ID. That’s insulting.”
She went on to list a number of activities she said required an ID. “How many people don’t have an ID?” she asked.
Oliver said 10 to 12 percent of eligible voters in New Mexico don’t have a photo ID.
“It tends to be the elderly, people who aren’t very mobile, our veterans … and a lot of them are homeless. There are any number of people for any number of reasons who don’t have an ID,” she said. “It’s very much a modern attitude that, well if I have an ID then everyone else must have one. That’s simply not the case. The reality is we need to make sure we’re protecting the rights of those folks as well so that they can cast a ballot.
“Election integrity isn’t just about preventing people from voting who shouldn’t; it’s even more about making sure everybody can who should be able to vote.”
Espinoza said they have had a voter ID requirement in Albuquerque for 10 years, “and no one has been denied. Not one person has been denied.”
Both agreed that more needs to be done to clarify and enforce the campaign finance system. Duran was convicted of transferring money from her campaign fund to her bank account over a two-year period to cover casino gambling debts. The crimes were uncovered following an anonymous tip to the attorney general.
“There is ample opportunity for people to not fully disclose or to not be transparent and to comply with the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law when it comes to the money that is raised,” Oliver said.
“The first thing we need to do is revamp the campaign finance system to make it much more functional and user friendly.”
She said they also need to clarify the campaign finance rules to ensure that candidates understand what is and is not allowed. Espinoza agreed, and said she introduced legislation (HB 310) in the last regular session to do just that.
“I think there’s a gray area that has really not been very clear, and needs to be clear,” she said.
Oliver said her experience in running elections and handling the record-keeping duties in the state’s largest county give her the experience edge in the race.
“My opponent has no experience. She has never run an election,” she said.
Espinoza said her experience in education and private business would translate well to the job.
“I have a lot of experience, as far as administrative experience,” she said. “With any job, you follow the law, you follow the rules for whatever the position is.”
She noted that while Oliver may have experience. It has not all be good. In the 2012 election, her office found 125 absentee ballots weeks after the election had been concluded.
“What kind of experience is that?” she asked. “If you are for the wrong policy, then your experience doesn’t help you that much.”
Oliver said they had a flaw in their accounting system for absentee ballots that led to the mistake. The ballots were discovered and counted in time, and a lengthy investigation was done to identify the flaw and make the needed changes, she said.
"These things happen, but it's about fixing them and making sure that they never happen again," she said.
A complaint has been filed against Oliver by Carlos Villanueva alleging that she failed to report income and had other discrepancies on her campaign report. Oliver spokesman Alan Packman described Villanueva as a well-known political opponent with an axe to grind. He said they have reviewed the complaint and will respond soon to the secretary of state.
Duran became the first Republican elected secretary of state in New Mexico since E.A. Perrault in 1929, thanks in large part to alleged scandals in the administrations of Democratic predecessors Mary Herrera and Rebecca Vigil-Giron. Both current candidates acknowledged the need to restore integrity to the office.
“While I’ve always been a champion of honest government and transparency, that was something we talked about in 2014, but it’s even more important this time because the whole reason we’re having a race for secretary of state this year is because of what happened with the former secretary of state,” Oliver said. “It’s very important that we elect somebody to the office who is going to make change and the critical reforms to the ethics rules.”
Espinoza said she would ensure that the office stayed out of politics if she is elected.
“This is not for me to be a campaign organizer and take on all these other issues that don’t impact the Secretary of State’s Office,” she said “This is strictly an administrative position, and you must remain neutral.”