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Voting in primary has primarily been ‘an over-50 affair’ in NM

Ray Surface and his wife, Elsie Surface, mark their ballots at an early-voting location in Albuquerque, as Tuesday's primary election for governor and other offices nears.
Ray Surface and his wife, Elsie Surface, mark their ballots at an early-voting location in Albuquerque, as Tuesday's primary election for governor and other offices nears.

Young voters may have been key to electing President Barack Obama, but they haven’t had much of a voice when it comes to choosing nominees for governor in New Mexico primary elections – like the one coming up Tuesday.

Voters between ages 18 and 34 in New Mexico accounted for about 10 percent of all votes cast in the 2010 primary elections, according to data compiled by Research & Polling Inc. That was the last election cycle in New Mexico to include a governor’s race.

Voters ages 50 and older, meanwhile, cast about 75 percent of all 2010 primary election ballots, according to the data.

That means that young voters – who make up about one in four registered Democratic and Republican voters – accounted for no more than one in 10 votes cast in the Republican and Democratic primaries in 2010.

In the 2010 general election, the proportion of young voters nearly doubled to account for about 20 percent of votes cast – closer to but still under their actual proportion of the registered voter population – the data show.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling and a New Mexico political analyst, said the low participation by young voters in the 2010 gubernatorial primaries is likely to carry over into the 2014 primary election, which includes five Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for governor.

Considering the trend of low turnout among young voters in state races, candidates for office tend to target their campaign efforts to older voters who historically have been far more likely to cast a primary ballot, Sanderoff said.

“Because the campaigns know that the participation in primary elections is an over-50 affair, they focus on those voters. They talk about issues they think are important to those (older) voters,” Sanderoff said.

Sanderoff said interest voters showed in electing Obama in 2008 apparently failed to carry over to later elections where state issues were the primary focus.

“It was sort of like a one-time deal,” Sanderoff said. “… It did not translate into permanent and continued participation in the electoral process.”

University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said young voters were directly engaged by the Obama campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts. But orchestrating the same kind of young voter mobilization has proven difficult for state candidates with limited resources running in a primary election.

That could be, in part, because young voters don’t have an established record of voting in primaries – records that candidates and their volunteers regularly use when knocking on doors to get potential supporters to vote.

“You may be less likely to be mobilized because you’re more shoddy in your behavior,” Atkeson said, referring to younger voters.

The fact that New Mexico prohibits independent and minor-party voters from participating in its primaries also is a likely factor in driving down primary election participation among voters 34 years old and younger, Atkeson said.

“I bet that older voters are more partisan and younger voters are more independent,” Atkeson said. “We have a closed primary state, and that probably also functions to reduce turnout of younger voters.”


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