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N.M. primary voting reform is long overdue

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New Mexico’s state Democratic and Republican parties have an opportunity to increase voter participation and ensure that more voters have the opportunity to vet candidates for public office by ending New Mexico’s closed primary system, which currently prohibits independents from voting.

There are 230,839 New Mexicans who are registered as independents (technically, DTS or decline to state), according to the secretary of state’s Voter Registration Statistics Report. These independents represent about 18 percent of New Mexico voters, or nearly one out of every five registered voters.

The ranks of independent voters continue to grow rapidly. As recently as 1984, only 6 percent of registered voters in New Mexico were independents. Thus, the percentage of independents in New Mexico has tripled in less than three decades.

Younger voters are the single biggest factor in the growth of independents in New Mexico.

Data from state voter files “show that young people between 18 and 30 are more than twice as likely, at about 25 percent, to decline to state a party when registering than people older than 60, among whom the figure is about 10 percent or lower,” according to a 2011 article in the Albuquerque Journal.

Meanwhile, more and more rank and file Democrats and Republicans are losing interest in voting in the current closed primaries. In the 2008 primary, turnout in New Mexico was 31 percent. In the 2010 primary, turnout decreased to 28 percent. In 2012, primary turnout decreased again to 24 percent.

New Mexico’s election statutes currently bar independents from voting in primaries. However, in Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut, the United States Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional for a state to mandate closed primaries. The court said in essence that a state cannot stop a party from opening its primary to unaffiliated or independent voters. Therefore, New Mexico’s statute barring independents from voting in primaries is unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Some argue that open primaries will lead to political mischief, but voters in the current closed primary system can already switch party registration up to a month before the election and vote in the other party’s primary if they choose. So a closed primary does not stop the type of mischief that some are concerned that an open primary might cause.

Furthermore, in most states, independents are already allowed to vote in primary elections either through open primaries (i.e., voters of any affiliation may vote in the primary of any party) or semi-open primaries (i.e., voters registered with a party vote in their party’s primary, while independent voters may choose a party primary to vote in).

Ending the closed primary system will lead to greater voter participation. When Arizona voters passed a constitutional amendment (by more than 20 percent) in 1998 to move from a closed to semi-open primary system, the new semi-open primaries increased voter turnout in primary elections from 19.6 percent of registered voters in 1998 to 24 percent in 2000 and to 30 percent in 2010.

In addition, ending the closed primary system will increase the accountability of elected officials by giving more voters the opportunity to vet the candidates on the front end.

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. For the same reason, open primaries or semi-open primaries would also decrease the polarization of candidates in both parties.

In four states, one party conducts an open primary while the other party’s primary is closed. Since independents often comprise the deciding swing votes in close elections, gaining their support early could make the difference in many elections. So there will be an advantage to whichever party moves first in New Mexico to open its primaries.

It is time for New Mexico’s Democratic and Republican party leaders to recognize that this reform is long overdue. New Mexicans should not have to pledge allegiance to a political party in order to exercise their right to vote.

Think New Mexico is a statewide public policy think tank. Fred Nathan is a registered independent.

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