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N.M. parties urged to open primaries

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico think tank is urging leaders of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties to end the state’s closed primary election system that prohibits participation by a growing number of voters who decline to state a party affiliation.

These voters, who decline to sign up as Democrats or Republicans when they register to vote, often are referred to as independents and are the fastest-growing category of voters in New Mexico.

Nearly 231,000 New Mexicans – about 18 percent of all voters -fall into the independent column and are not eligible to participate in primary elections.

Think New Mexico Executive Director Fred Nathan, in a letter to party leaders Wednesday, said opening the primaries to independent voters will boost voter engagement in primary elections.

Primary election turnout has been declining, he noted.

The number of independent voters in New Mexico has tripled in the last three decades, from 6 percent of registered voters in 1984 to 18 percent in 2013, Nathan said.

“Some people don’t want to pledge their allegiance to a particular party,” Nathan said in an interview. “I would point out that their tax dollars are paying for these elections, and they should be given the ability to vote in these elections.”

Nathan asked Republicans and Democrats to use coming party meetings to consider primary changes. Democrats are scheduled to meet Saturday to elect a party chair; Republicans will have a statewide meeting this summer, but the date has not been set.

“Ending the closed primary system will increase the accountability of our elected officials by giving more voters the opportunity to vet candidates on the front end,” Nathan said.

“As you know, many New Mexico elections are essentially decided during the primary, so opening the primaries to more voters will ultimately result in elected officials who represent the perspectives of more of their constituents,” Nathan said.

Leaders of both major parties said Wednesday that they would consider the request but also voiced resistance.

“While we will review the request, the idea of open primaries allows for outside groups to organize and disrupt the party’s primary process,” said Republican Party Chairman John Billingsley.

“As a party, we seek to keep primaries as they are in order to ensure that the best possible Republican candidates are put forth for each race,” Billingsley said.

Scott Forrester, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said a move to open primaries would not be considered at the party’s state meeting on Saturday.

“It’s a much more complex issue than what (Nathan) has asserted,” Forrester said. “The chairman believes the party deserves a conversation about it, and come next spring’s pre-primary convention … we’ll come to a consensus about how we feel about this.”

Although the closed primary system is established by state law, Nathan said a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling – Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut – makes the New Mexico law “unenforceable,” leaving the major political parties to decide whether to open primary elections to independent voters.

New Mexico is one of 22 states in the U.S. with closed primary elections, according to data compiled by Think New Mexico.

Seven of those states allow independent voters to declare a party affiliation on Election Day and cast a ballot.

New Mexico requires voters to register as Republicans or Democrats nearly a month before the primary election to participate.

Nathan said the party that reaches out to independents to engage them earlier in the primary process might have a competitive advantage in holding those voters’ support through the general election.

“Since independents often comprise the deciding swing votes in close elections, gaining their support early could make the difference in many elections,” Nathan said in his letter to party leaders.

Longtime New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff said there isn’t strong evidence that opening primary voting to independents would increase primary participation.

Sanderoff said general election turnout by independents in presidential contests has been lower than major party turnout.

“Whether a lot of them are going to have a burning desire to participate in a primary remains to be seen,” Sanderoff said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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