Certify: “to verify, guarantee, validate, confirm, endorse.”
The recent ballot petition signature challenge by gubernatorial hopeful Jeff Apodaca was an eye-opening experience for me, and a window into business as usual in New Mexico. Until now, I assumed that the process was legitimate and governed by the rule of law.
Not only did I discover that the individual parties do not adhere to their own party rules, but no one in New Mexico verifies petition signatures.
When the Jeff Apodaca team spent days checking the signatures on Joseph Cervantes’ ballot petition, they discovered many duplicate signatures, signatures of deceased New Mexicans and unregistered voters. On the one hand, this is not surprising. Statistically speaking, it is assumed that 20 percent of the signatures will be invalid due simply to the manner of collection. As a result, most candidates obtain 20 percent more signatures that necessary. Not so, Sen. Cervantes.
When I observed this tedious process, my first reaction was, “Why does the Jeff Apodaca campaign team need to do this? Haven’t these signatures already been certified by the secretary of state?” Indeed, they were “certified” by the Secretary of State’s Office, but not checked. The secretary of state does not verify any of the signatures — she simply accepts the candidates at their word and counts the number of pages to confirm the necessary number of slots have been filled.
When I inquired about this lackadaisical approach to the election process, I was told that the secretary’s office “feels” that “the process for vetting the authenticity of petition signatures lies within the courts and that this is the appropriate venue for such questions.” In support of this “feeling,” I was directed to NMSA 1-8-26 E.
So, as a good student being “schooled” by the secretary’s office, I did my homework and read the complete legislation.
There is no provision or requirement for the courts to certify signatures. Rather, the regulations specifically state that it is the secretary of state’s responsibility to “determine whether the number of signatures required have been submitted and all the requirements of 1-8-1 through 1-8-3 NMSA 1978 have been complied with” — this would include “determining” that each signatory is “a member of the party” and “a resident in the district” and presumably if they are alive. Simply trusting either the candidate or the party officials is to sidestep the responsibility of the secretary of state.
In point of fact, the secretary of state is the only person/office that can possibly certify signatures, since only this office has all the records and can determine party registration, voter residence and whether a signatory is a living resident. The Secretary of State’s Office is the certifying authority by law. If the office is “certifying” candidates without fulfilling the above obligations, then there is a miscarriage of office.
A conversation with a local constitutional attorney about this state of affairs also was enlightening. Since the courts do not have the resources to verify petition signatures, attorneys in the past have been forced to hire former FBI agents and graphoanalysts in order to disqualify petition signatures. According the state of New Mexico website, “The Secretary of State oversees the entire election process” and his/her “primary role is the state’s chief election officer.”
Meanwhile, candidates in New Mexico, such as Cervantes, can rest assured that no one will dispute their ballot petition signatures. The secretary will pass the buck to the courts and the courts will refuse to get involved, and everyone else will turn a blind eye. Which raises the question, why bother requiring petition signatures at all?
Rob Kurz has lived in New Mexico for 29 years and resides in Placitas.