John Gomes was smiling as he filled out a voter registration form at Chaparral High School in April.
"I love being patriotic and living in this country," said the 17-year-old, who was planning to register as a Republican. "I'd love to decide what happens next."
That's exactly the sort of energy Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling likes to see. Krahling's office has undertaken an ambitious effort to address the perennial problem of low voter turnout, largely through engaging young people and aiming to build a stronger culture of voting in the county over a generation.
The clerk's office has formed a nonpartisan advisory council tasked with dreaming big and coming up with tangible steps toward greater civic engagement. It's formed a separate youth advisory council with area college students to encourage voting among that age group, and will have an early voting site at New Mexico State University for the first time during the upcoming general election.
The clerk's office held a listening session last fall in Las Cruces to hear why people don't vote that was attended by dozens of residents. It held a second meeting in Hatch earlier this summer and will hold community conversations in Sunland Park, Chaparral and Anthony in the coming weeks.
Krahling is building partnerships in the schools and elsewhere to encourage community buy-in and get help from volunteers. Clerk's office staff and independent voter registration agents regularly visit high schools to talk with young people about the importance of voting and register them.
And Krahling, a Democrat, has lobbied for election reforms at the local and state levels to try to make participation easier.
It's all part of a philosophical shift about the job. A long-held societal attitude that voting is an individual responsibility contributed to a belief that government officials should simply administer elections. Historically, it has been on candidates and activist groups to turn people out to vote.
But the advent of dark money with the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision means lots of money spent - sometimes to turn out certain voters, and sometimes to discourage them from voting. That has pushed many elections officials to rethink their jobs. Some, like Krahling, are taking a more active role in encouraging every eligible voter to vote in every election. The National Association of Secretaries of State has a committee focused on increasing voter turnout. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is a member of that committee.
Toulouse Oliver said she supports building a nonpartisan system to ensure civic engagement is "embedded into the culture." She praised the work Krahling is leading in Doña Ana County as among the more forward-thinking efforts around increasing voter participation.
"What Scott's doing really is a model for other communities around the state," said Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat.
Voter turnout, though still relatively low, has been on the rise across New Mexico and the United States since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016. So measuring the success of the efforts in Doña Ana County, or distinguishing them from other reasons turnout is increasing, is a challenge.
But it's noteworthy that in the primary elections in June, voter turnout was up 7 percent statewide compared to 2014, the last time the same races were on the ballot. Doña Ana County, by comparison, saw a whopping increase of 59 percent. That spike in turnout was higher than in Bernalillo County, which saw a 48 percent increase, and Santa Fe County, where turnout was up 37 percent.
"While we're far away from our goal of getting everyone to vote in every election, I am very excited to see such a huge increase," Krahling said.
Still, turnout for the June primaries in Doña Ana County was nothing to brag about at 21 percent of eligible voters. Statewide, 27.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. "We have a lot of work to do," Krahling said.
A vision takes shape
The Doña Ana County Clerk's Office was starting to see some stability and success in cleaning up longstanding problems when Krahling came on board as the head of the Bureau of Elections in 2013. So there was room to rethink the office's role in the community, Krahling said. When he became chief deputy clerk in 2014, he formed the Election Advisory Council to "bring people who are interested in seeing more civic participation to the table."
"I knew our system wasn't producing efforts, and I knew there were a lot of people in the community who thought we should solve that problem," Krahling said.
For a couple of years, the committee focused during its monthly meetings on brainstorming and building partnerships. Then in 2016, it launched an effort to register more voters -- especially young people in schools.
Last year, the council hosted a meeting in Las Cruces and invited people to share why they don't vote. While regular voters often think others don't vote because they're apathetic, what Krahling heard from the people who aren't voting was different, and a revelation for him: Many said they want to be involved but find the system confusing.
People had a hard time keeping up with the many elections held in the county each year, for example. And some of the approximately 80 people who attended the meeting said they didn't know where to get trustworthy information about candidates.
Even though Krahling says his office's efforts are still largely in a listening phase, a vision is taking shape:
Voting should be as simple as possible. That's why Krahling and other county clerks lobbied for a policy change approved by the state this year that consolidates most local elections into one, large election held every other November. The intent is that people know they will have one election each November - for partisan races like Congress, state legislature and county commission in even-numbered years, and for nonpartisan races like city council and school board in odd-numbered years.
Krahling convinced the Las Cruces City Council to join the consolidated elections. He also recently helped convince officials in Las Cruces to implement ranked choice voting. Essentially, voters will rank candidates running for city offices instead of voting for one. If a candidate doesn't rise to the top after first-choice tallying, an instant runoff will be held using voters' second choices, and so on until a candidate reaches the required threshold for victory.
Krahling likes that anyone who gets a driver's license or state ID card in New Mexico is asked whether they want to register to vote. But the state can expand that to all residents who are eligible to vote, he said. Oregon recently implemented what's called automatic voter registration and saw a spike in turnout. Krahling also supports same-day voter registration, which allows people to show up to register and vote at the same time. That's not currently allowed in New Mexico.
And Krahling wants New Mexico to consider a hybrid in-person and mail-in voting system like Colorado's, where all eligible voters are mailed a ballot that they can fill out and return - or, if they prefer, they can instead vote in person.
The clerk's office should coordinate efforts to encourage civic engagement and voting. For the most part, Krahling said, people who are eligible to vote have access to voting, even if systems can be improved to make it easier. "We've got a good system and we still have a lack of participation - and that's where we've got work to do," Krahling said.
How do we get them to vote?
Following November's general election, the Election Advisory Council will have three years of intense voter registration efforts to study, said Dolores Connor, a Republican and former Las Cruces city councilor who chairs the group. Many people who have registered to vote aren't voting, she said. The council plans to ask them why.
"The next step," Connor said, "is how do we get them to vote?"
This fall, for the first time, the clerk's office is making information available on its webpage, in partnership with the League of Women Voters, to help people better understand who and what is appearing on the November ballot. Postcards will go out to registered voters before the election directing people to the website as a source of nonpartisan information.
Partnering with news organizations is also important to getting information to voters, Connor said. KRWG's Director of Content Fred Martino has been involved with the advisory council, and he's stepped up efforts to hold televised forums with candidates in Doña Ana County.
Schools need to implement a long-term effort to teach the importance of civic engagement. Schools have gotten away from teaching civics, said Las Cruces Public Schools Superintendent Greg Ewing, whose administration is partnering with Krahling's office to tackle the problem. "Now it's time to return to those roots," Ewing said.
The Center for American Progress reported earlier this year that New Mexico had the second-lowest mean score on the U.S. government AP exam, beating only Mississippi. Only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics study to graduate from high school; New Mexico is among 30 states that require a half-year. And while 17 states require passing a civics exam to graduate, New Mexico isn't among them, the Center reported.
Civics courses are making a comeback in the United States, The New York Times recently reported. One high school government and history teacher in New York, for example, is spearheading the creation of a four-year program in which students "immerse themselves in the workings of their town of Mamaroneck -- just north of New York City -- and find a useful solution to an ongoing problem," The Times reported.
In Doña Ana County, the LCPS task force is in a "look, listen, learn phase," Ewing said. The task force has discussed building a civics curriculum and developing lesson plans, Krahling said. He also aims to eventually have the county's official voting machines used in student council elections to get students accustomed to voting in the same way they will in official elections as adults.
And elections officials plan to keep visiting schools and registering students to vote.
"We've got to get people graduating from high school all having had that experience," Krahling said. "If we're doing that, then we're building a voting culture."
A mind shift for policymakers
In rural, less-populated counties, funding can be a barrier to ambitious efforts to engage citizens. Mary Lou Harkins, the clerk in Union County in the northeast corner of New Mexico, said her office in Clayton has a staff of only three, and finding time for such efforts would be difficult.
Her staff has visited schools, senior centers and nursing homes. Harkins, a Democrat, said Union County has a higher voter turnout percentage than many New Mexico counties - perhaps 10-20 percent in local elections and 60-70 percent in national contests on average. Still, she wishes she could do more.
"I totally believe that as a clerk we should stir it up and encourage people, and [Krahling] is fortunate that he has a huge staff," Harkins said. "We are just too small. … We just do the best we can."
Krahling's office has a larger staff, but it also has bigger elections to run in a county with a population of about 215,000 to Union County's 4,200. Thus far, Krahling said the costs have been minimal - for example, building a website and sending a mailer to voters. Personnel costs, like visiting schools to register voters, are built into existing employees' schedules. And volunteers are pitching in. Krahling's aim is not that the clerk's office does all the work, but that it builds a network of agencies and volunteers and coordinates their efforts.
"It shows how we value utilizing partners to coordinate," he said. "… Overall, our residents are benefiting from more efficient use of resources and more value in the election."
Still, Krahling said a more permanent source of funding from the state for elections is needed. His office currently has the resources to mail one postcard to registered voters each year. "That's a good starting point, but it would be great if everyone statewide got a packet of information on the election and the choices on the ballot," he said. "We need to engage in more direct communication, and that costs our time and effort."
Toulouse Oliver said persistent underfunding of the Secretary of State's Office and county clerks is a barrier to increasing engagement with citizens. She noted that her office is heading into the general election with an estimated $1.4 million deficit. She's going to have to ask for supplemental funding to pay for the election - as that office has had to do more than once in recent years.
"That has to stop, treating elections like they are an ancillary cost or an emergency cost," Toulouse Oliver said. "…Viewing these educational efforts as necessary to our elections, as necessary to our democracy, is the next cultural mind shift among policymakers that needs to happen."