League of Women Voters Voter Guides Prohibited at the Polls on Election Day

Nov 5, 2012

As voters head out to the polls to vote on Election Day, it's not just polling locations that may have changed this year.  The League of Women Voters voter guides are no longer available in county clerk's offices or polling locations.  The New Mexico Secretary of State's office says the voter guides constitute electioneering, something that is prohibited within 100 feet of a polling place.  But not everyone agrees with the Secretary of State's interpretation of a 2011 law.

If you're like many voters in cities like Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Los Alamos, you're used to seeing printed copies of the League of Women Voters voter guides at your polling place. 

They're sort of like the newspaper that sits on the counter at the local diner, read by multiple people, then left for the next diner. But not this year. 

"Voters are going to have to work a little harder to find this information," says Shelley Shepard, co-President of the League of Women Voters of Central New Mexico. She says the league printed about 50,000 copies of the guide and that 20,000 of those were placed in county clerk's offices and early voting locations.

"We're very concerned and dismayed," Shepard says, "Our members have been calling and voicing concerns. They don't understand why this has happened."

Shepard says the guides have been available in polling places every general election since 2006.

When the Secretary of State's office started receiving complaints from early voters in October, Secretary of State Dianna Duran says she took the question to the agency's lawyers.  They interpreted changes made last year to the state's elections law to mean the voter guides are prohibited in polling places.

"The league of women voters guide contains candidate campaign information," Secretary Duran says, "of course, not for all candidates, either.  If you didn't reply, and you are a candidate, then there is no answer to their question. But if you did reply then it has that candidate's information."

Duran says the only materials allowed to be handed out to voters in polling locations are sample ballots and the Secretary of State's voter guide on constitutional amendments and bonds.

But Denise Lamb doesn't agree with this interpretation of the state's election code.  She is the Chief Deputy clerk for Elections in Santa Fe county and a former state Elections Director.  "This is not campaign literature," Lamb says about the League of Women Voters voter guide. "It does not say, vote for so and so.  It's not printed by a campaign and it's not urging anyone to support one candidate over another."

This question of whether the League of Women Voters voter guides constituted electioneering came up during her tenure as Elections Director, and Lamb says the decision was made in 2006 that the guides were not prohibited from polling places.

Lamb also says changes to the state elections law last year do not apply to the voter guides. Instead, Lamb says, the law was changed to prohibit things like pins and t-shirts.  She says the changes also resolved another issue- the old version of the law said anyone who is within 50ft of a polling place who is not voting could be charged with misdemeanor obstruction.

"Our treasurer's office is 15ft from the county clerks office," Lamb explains. "You don't want someone who is going in to pay their tax bill approaching nearer than 50ft and have that be considered obstruction."

Lamb says it's a case of lawyers from two different administrations having differences of opinion on the interpretation of language in a statute.  Nevertheless, she says she and the elections officials at the Santa Fe County Clerks office complied with the Secretary of State's order to remove the League of Women Voters voter guides.

The League's Shelley Shepard says voters can find printed copies of the guide in many libraries and community and senior centers in Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces.  The guide is also available on the League of Women Voters of New Mexico website.