Democracy at Stake in a New Mexico Race for Secretary of State

In warning about voter fraud, Donald Trump is following in the footsteps of more respectable Republicans like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. For decades, Republicans have used charges of fraud to enact legislation that would make it more difficult for predictable Democratic constituencies (minorities, the young) to vote. A key battle this November will be the Secretary of State’s race in New Mexico. It’s a doozy, with a truly scary Republican candidate.

In New Mexico, as in most states, the Secretary of State has responsibility for the electoral process. In the 2014 Republican wave, New Mexico elected its first Republican Secretary of State since the Great Depression. Dianna Duran ran on a platform of ending fraud among illegal immigrants. Her staff claimed to have discovered 117 such cases – but was never able to provide any evidence to back it up. Before she could do any real damage, however, Duran pleaded guilty to embezzling campaign funds to feed a gambling addiction and had to resign in October 2015.

This year, Republican Nora Espinoza is campaigning for the seat on the same issues of voter fraud. As a member of the state’s House of Representatives, she sponsored a law to require voters to offer official photo identification at the polls. The 62-year-old Espinoza, who runs a salsa business, claims she got a degree in religious education from the New Covenant International University in Florida, but according to an excellent story about the race in the Santa Fe New Mexican, the U.S. Department of Education has no record of an accredited college under that name.

Elected to the legislature in 2006, Espinoza sponsored a bill that would have allowed criminal prosecution against doctors who failed to inform patients seeking abortion of the risk of cancer and other severe maladies. She also advocated a bill allowing businesses to refuse to serve gay people on religious grounds. None of these bills got through the legislature. In the election, Espinoza is backing Trump.

Her opponent, 40-year-old Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, lost to Duran in 2014 by only 16,000 votes. A county official with a master’s degree in political science from the University of New Mexico, she has advocated measures to make voting easier, including automatic registration for voters who get driver’s licenses, and same-day voter registration. She also wants to require that candidates offer detailed disclosure of their contributions and and that these disclosures be published on the state’s web site.

Oliver has almost twice as much money as Espinosa – Emily’s List and Ivote, two liberal groups that have evidently recognized the importance of these down-ballot elections, have given her a maximum of $10,800 each. Four of Espinosa’s largest contributions have come from the oil industry. In a September poll, Oliver was seven points ahead of Espinoza and she should benefit in November from a big victory for Hillary Clinton, who leads Trump by 13 points in the latest survey. If so, it will be an important victory – and may perhaps persuade other national Democratic organizations to get behind these efforts to save democracy on a state level.