By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
Since 1982, nine minority candidates attempted to fill the Curry County magistrate judge’s seat.
None of them succeeded.
At fault, according to Johnny Chavez, is the at-large voting system used in magistrate elections. The Clovis native, defeated twice pursuing the seat, says the system is flawed, part of lingering minority discrimination.
A 63-year-old Mexican-American, Chavez remembers a time when prejudice couldn’t be escaped, even in local movie theaters. “Some,” he recalled, “allowed whites; some allowed whites and Hispanics and not blacks. I saw a lot of stuff I didn’t like as a child. We’ve come a long way. But this system needs to be changed.”
Chavez led a campaign in the 1980s to eradicate at-large voting election of county commissioners and school board members. Shortly after that triumph, he won a spot on the county commission.
Chavez and African-American school board member Terry Martin want to squash the at-large system once and for all in Curry County through a joint lawsuit filed in May against New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, overseer of state elections.
The Fourth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, written to ensure fair voting practices, are violated each time a magistrate is elected in Curry County, according to the Martin-Chavez complaint. Under the current at-large voting system, magistrate judges are elected through a single, countywide vote.
The process has already been disbanded in Chavez, San Juan, Eddy and Lea counties through similar lawsuits.
“We need representatives from every group,” Chavez said. “If you run an election at-large, there is no chance for any minority to win. It is gerrymandered. These challenges are brought about daily. It is a system that needs to be changed to allow equality. I don’t think anyone really fights the need for that — I would hope no one would.”
Martin referred inquiries to his lawyer.
“In order to have minorities have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, one remedy is to have district election by single-member districts,” said plaintiff attorney Manuel Lopez from his Las Cruces office. He proposes the county replace its at-large system with a single-member system.
“A single-member-district system,” Lopez said, “would carve the county into two districts.” Each district would be responsible for naming its own magistrate judge, giving minorities, Lopez said, “a chance to elect the person they believe is best suited to fill that position.”
Former longtime Clovis municipal judge Russell Muffley believes the at-large system is fair and sees no reason to change it.
“When I was running, I would go out and knock on people’s doors and tell them I would enforce the law as fair and as evenly as possible,” said Muffley, who served as judge for 18 years before retiring in 2002. “It was simple. If they liked me, they voted for me. If the didn’t like me, they didn’t vote for me.”
Voting for municipal judge is also done by the at-large system.
Curry County Chief Deputy Clerk Coni Jo Lyman said although her office is preparing for a ruling in favor of Chavez and Martin she doesn’t see any problems with the current system. She said she doesn’t feel the system is blatantly discriminatory.
“I feel like the time has come for it to happen because it already has in several other large counties,” Lyman said.
“It won’t be a large burden on my the office — a demographer will just draw a line,” she said. Most likely that line will run across Main Street, she said.
Lyman, however, is concerned that the division, referred to as “apartheid-like” by some, could cause more harm than good.
“I hope we don’t end up dividing the community. That’s not what this is about,” Lyman said. “It’s about everybody having a voice. And I could only hope that the people currently elected do their best to represent us all, regardless of color.”
Paul Nixon, deputy communication director for the attorney general’s office and representative of secretary of state, said that because the matter is still in litigation, his office cannot comment on the Chavez-Martin case.