Confused over confusing wording, NM voters turn down amendment

PHRASING FLAP: The wording of an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution may have been a major reason it did failed on Election Day.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

In the case of a proposed amendment to the New Mexico Constitution that failed in Tuesday’s election, it seems you can alter that to say, “It’s not what you write, but how it’s written.”

Amendment No. 1, dealing with school elections, received 57.6 percent approval from voters across the state. But since the amendment concerned voting rights, it needed to be favored by at least 75 percent of the electorate.

Critics called wording of the amendment confusing, which generated a spate of stories — including one by New Mexico Watchdog — in the days leading up to the election.

“I think the panoply of stories of this (amendment) being confusing contributed to the confusion,” said state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor of Amendment No. 1, who was quick to add that he was not blaming the media for the amendment falling 17.4 points shy of passage.

“Clearly, the wording could have been better,” Ivey-Soto said.

Here’s how Constitutional Amendment 1 was phrased to voters:

Proposing to amend article 7, section 1 of the constitution of New Mexico to provide that school elections shall be held at different times from partisan elections.

The wording seems to imply that school elections are now held at the same time as partisan elections. But they aren’t. In fact, they are held completely separate from all elections across the state.

The amendment’s intent was to pave the way for the Legislature to consider running school elections at the same time as municipal elections — to improve turnout and save money. Ivey-Soto has estimated in Bernalillo County alone — the most populous county in the state — the move could save taxpayers between $300,000 and $500,000.

Ivey-Soto thinks the controversy about constitutional amendments in last year’s legislative session hurt Amendment No. 1’s chances. In the 2014 session, Democrats offered up a series of resolutions to amend the state’s constitution that Republicans said were aimed at doing an end-run around Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

“I think there was greater suspicion (about amendments) amongst the body politic” in Tuesday’s election, Ivey-Soto said.

Four other constitutional amendments were approved by a majority of voters Tuesday but only Amendment No. 1 needed 75 percent approval.

Six years ago, Ivey-Soto said, the amendment was worded exactly the same and fell just one-half of 1 percent shy of passing.

Ivey-Soto said there’s a good chance he’ll bring the amendment back — only this time with different wording.

“Instead of having the title saying, providing that (school elections) shall not be held at the same time as partisan elections, we’ll have it say, they’ll be provided to permit school (elections) during other non-partisan races,” Ivey-Soto said. “It’s an incredibly simple fix to whatever confusion people may have had.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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