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Court urged to halt closed primaries

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s closed primary system is coming under fire once again, as four registered voters argued in a petition filed Tuesday with the state Supreme Court that the state’s current setup unconstitutionally benefits major political parties at the expense of taxpayers.

Currently, only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in their respective primary election in New Mexico, leaving independent voters – or those who decline to affiliate with a political party – unable to participate.

Despite that setup, the number of independent voters in New Mexico has grown steadily in recent years. There were 278,146 such voters as of last month – or roughly 22 percent of the total registered voters statewide, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Many of those independent voters are younger voters who are disillusioned with the traditional two-party system, said Heather Ferguson, the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonprofit group that’s supporting the lawsuit.

“We need to make sure we’re not depriving voters of their voice,” Ferguson said Tuesday.

The petition was filed by Santa Fe attorney Paul Bardacke, a former state attorney general, on behalf of four petitioners – two registered independent voters, one Democrat and one Republican.

While previous lawsuits and legislative efforts to open up primary elections to independent voters have been unsuccessful, the new effort hinges on a different argument – that using public funds to run closed primaries violates the state Constitution’s “anti-donation” clause.

“New Mexico’s closed primary elections are exclusionary and held for the benefit of major political parties, which are purely private entities,” the 26-page lawsuit asserts. “Even though the primary election is closed and exclusionary, primary elections are paid for by public funds and New Mexico taxpayers, while the major political parties reap the benefits.”

New Mexico is currently one of only nine states with a closed primary system, according to the lawsuit.

Critics of open primaries have argued that independents should affiliate with a major political party if they want to participate in primary elections, in which political parties nominate candidates to appear on the general election ballot.

Rep. Eliseo Alcón, D-Milan, the chairman of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, said Tuesday he believes the current system works and said opening up primary elections could lead to crossover voting, in which Republicans vote in Democratic primaries or vice versa.

He also said many independent voters tend to lean one way or another, politically speaking.

“I’ve always felt that if you want to be part of the process, you should have the guts to say what you are,” Alcón told the Journal.

However, backers point out that primary elections can be decisive in parts of the state where Democrats or Republicans have hefty voter registration advantages, as nominated candidates in such areas are often unopposed in the general election.

Meanwhile, the push for open primary elections has also drawn the support of several key figures who won election – or re-election – in last week’s general election.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who is the state’s top election official and is named in the petition filed Tuesday, has said she now supports the idea of open primary elections as a way to increase voter participation after years of opposing it.

“We’re one of the only states that does it the way we do it and it’s time to move forward on that,” Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, told the Journal in a recent interview.

Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat, has also signaled her support of the idea, saying it would force candidates to reach out to a broader electorate even before the primary election.

It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether to hold oral arguments on the petition filed Tuesday.

The state’s highest court upheld the constitutionality of the closed primary system in a February 2017 ruling on a separate lawsuit that had been appealed, finding that requiring voters to register with a major political party before a primary election was a “reasonably modest burden.”

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