Lawsuit challenges New Mexico special election rules for independent candidates

Local Elections

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A new lawsuit tied to the state’s rules for independent candidates has emerged as the expected departure of Congresswoman Deb Haaland is likely to spark a special election. An independent voter is suing the state hoping to lower the bar for candidates without major party affiliation who want their name on the ballot.

The lawsuit filed in Bernalillo County District Court claims state law unconstitutionally discriminates against independent candidates. The lawsuit claims candidates face “a significantly more daunting path to ballot access,” or the process of getting their names on the ballot.

Independent candidates who want their name on the ballot face the prospect of gathering hundreds of signatures. That’s something major party candidates will not have to do in the expected special election. “So what we’re dealing with in this lawsuit is the unfairness of allowing party candidates to get on the ballot with the support of just a few hundred,” said Kenneth Stalter an attorney representing an independent voter who filed the lawsuit. “An independent candidate has to get the support of thousands, we believe that’s unconstitutional.”

Lawsuit on independent candidate rules below:

If Congresswoman Haaland vacates her Congressional seat, the New Mexico Secretary of State has between 77 and 91 days to call a special election. State law says Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians’ “central committees” will have a vote to choose their party candidate. For Democrats and the GOP, there’s over one-hundred people on those committees who a responsible for the final name that represents their party on the ballot.

Since independents don’t have a “central committee,” they’re bound to signature gathering. Depending on when a candidate formally declares their candidacy, an independent may have to gather more than six-thousand signatures.

The lawsuit argues, it’s unconstitutional to set the bar lower for major parties, compared to independents. “Our concern is not where the bar is set,” Stalter said. “Our concern is that the bar is the same for party members and independent candidates and if the state wants to make sure there’s not too many candidates on the ballot, then set a high bar, but make it equally high for party members as it is for independents.”

No court dates have been set in the case. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office hasn’t formally responded in court to the lawsuit yet in any court filings.

A spokesman for Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office said they believe the case should be dismissed. Communications Director Alex Curtas said, in part, qualified political parties go through a much tougher process to be included on the ballot.

These challenges to New Mexico’s law governing how independent candidates can run in a special congressional election are not new and have been thus far rejected by the courts. This case does not offer a new legal argument. An independent candidate is not similarly situated to a qualified political party candidate seeking to be included on a special election ballot. Qualified political parties go through a much more rigorous process to be included on the ballot and have already demonstrated a substantial level of support, unlike independent candidates. If the court agreed to the relief requested by the Plaintiff, independent candidates would have no ability to field a candidate in a special election. We think the dismissal of this case is appropriate.

Alex Curtas, Communications Director, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

So far at least five candidates have declared their intent to run for Haaland’s seat. If Haaland is confirmed, her seat could be vacated by Spring 2021.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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