ALBUQUERQUE — With the 2020 general election less than a week away, some voters still may have questions about the election process — particularly those for whom this will be the first presidential election in which they’ve been old enough to take part.
To help guide voters through this momentous, era-defining election, the Daily Lobo interviewed Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor and the director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy.
The first step of participating in an election is, naturally, ensuring you are registered to vote.
Many UNM undergraduates will be voting in their first presidential election in 2020. In the context of this most unusual year of the pandemic, registration efforts for first-time voters have had to move to new channels.
“I know a lot of students, especially with (the COVID-19 pandemic), who didn’t get opportunities to (register) early in the semester,” Atkeson said. “There used to be tables outside, and people would come into classes to register people to vote.”
Online voter registration in New Mexico has closed, but those who are not registered yet can still do so by taking advantage of same day voter registration as part of early voting at their neighborhood polling place. Same day registration will be open until Oct. 31. First-time voters are required to provide identification to register, and the list of acceptable documents for registration is available on the Secretary of State’s same day registration website.
“This is the first opportunity we’ve had in a general election to do same day registration,” Atkeson said. “These are new opportunities the state has extended.”
Voters who want to check their registration status or find a polling location nearby can do so through the Secretary of State’s voter information portal.
After registration though, voters may have further questions about the electoral process and their ballot.
“I think that 99% of ballots sent through the mail are going to make it in. You can also check online to see if your ballot has arrived,” Atkeson said. “If you’re concerned that your ballot may not arrive on time, they’ve put some drop boxes up, (or) you can walk it in to any early voting location in your county or any vote center on election day. There are a lot of options … so you should do what makes you feel most confident.”
United States citizens typically find out on election day who won the presidential election. This time around, however, counting votes could take significantly longer because more people are voting by mail, according to CNN.
Voters may also wonder about the value of their vote. In presidential elections, the Electoral College has become a lively topic of discussion, particularly after the contentious 2016 election.
The Electoral College is a unique structure in U.S. politics that makes it so that some votes “weigh more” than others. For example, voters in swing states like Ohio have more impact on their state’s electoral votes than voters in states that solidly favor one party, like Massachusetts or Oklahoma.
“These things wax and wane,” Atkeson said, regarding the relative weight of New Mexicans’ votes in presidential elections. “New Mexico was a bellwether state until, I would say, about 2004. If you look over time, we really did go back and forth … and I still think that, although it appears all blue, it has underlying conservative trends.”
Because the Electoral College lends disproportionate weight to small, rural states, and those states tend to lean Republican, the GOP currently enjoys a structural advantage in the system. As a result, the debate over the College is hyper-partisan. The debate has escalated following the 2000 and 2016 general elections, in which Republican candidates George W. Bush and Trump, respectively, lost the popular vote but became president through the Electoral College.
However, the Electoral College only exists at the presidential level. This means that voters wield much more direct authority over the rest of their ballot. Indeed, many argue that local elections have a greater direct impact on voters’ day-to-day lives than their national counterparts.
Candidates in state and local races tend to be less well-known than those in national races. Luckily for voters, there are resources available to learn about the candidates who will appear on their ballots.
The voter guide features a questionnaire and answers from nearly every candidate running for office at the federal, state, judicial district and county levels.
There are also resources available to help voters sort through the judicial retention portion of their ballot. The New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission publishes evaluations of judges every two years, featuring input from attorneys, court staff, resource staff and jurors. Using survey data from these groups, the commission makes recommendations on whether or not to retain judges. Its latest 2020 report was released in September.
The voter guides also contain explanations and arguments for and against constitutional amendments and descriptions of bonds, including a link to the specific legislation explaining where bond money would go if approved.
Bonds are essentially a debt that states or municipalities agree to pay over a fixed period of time. All of the bonds appearing on New Mexicans’ ballots this year are general obligation bonds, meaning the state or municipality can use taxes to pay the debt. Typically, property taxes are later used to repay bonds. The bonds on New Mexico’s ballot, like most bonds, would be used to fund infrastructure projects.
Constitutional amendments are changes to New Mexico’s constitution which have been passed by the state legislature. In New Mexico, constitutional amendments are required to go to a public vote before they go into effect. This year's proposed constitutional amendments need only a simple majority vote to be approved, according to the New Mexico Legislative Council Service.
Given that election day is a holiday for UNM students this year, and you now have the tools you need to make informed decisions, Atkeson encouraged every student to get out and vote.
William Bowen is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BowenWrites