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Editorial: Focus on open primaries to expand voter turnout

In New Mexico you can register to vote up to 28 days before an election. You can register in person or online. You can request the form by mail, telephone or in person. You can fill one out at your county clerk’s office or any motor vehicle office, or at any third-party group’s card table sign up outside events or busy stores.

In other words, it’s not hard. And when interest is high in an election, as it was with the recent midterms, the 28-day registration deadline doesn’t seem to suppress turnout. There were record-breaking early vote totals for a nonpresidential election year, and overall 698,976 registered voters cast ballots, a statewide turnout rate of 55.4 percent. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver says “we had a very active and engaged electorate in New Mexico this election cycle, and that’s a positive.”

But instead of truly trying to expand participation by focusing on opening the state’s primaries – which she supports – she is pushing legislation on same-day registration as a way to increase voter participation.

We already know that fully one-fifth of the state’s registered voters, around a quarter of a million people, are disenfranchised every primary because they register as Decline To State rather than pledge allegiance to a major party ideology. Many of those are age 18 to 24, the state’s next generation of leaders. Our closed primary system, one of the last in the nation, silences hundreds of thousands of independent voters and protects the political party machines that encourage candidates to pander to their extreme bases. And it limits voter participation in races that, because there is no general election opposition, are decisive, meaning a huge number of voters have no say in the elections that decide who will run their city, county and state governments.

Yet Toulouse Oliver is more interested in signing up voters who decide on a whim – much like saying “yes” to “you want fries with that?” in a drive-through – to cast a ballot on Election Day. The National Council of State Legislatures says the average increase same-day registration has on voter participation is just 5 percent. Consider that New Mexico can’t count and validate its votes with fidelity and public confidence with a 28-day lead time on voter registrations. Do we really think doing it all on one day will make things better?

Meanwhile the Journal has long supported a modified open primary system, one that would require independent voters to pick one or the other major political party in a primary. That would allow them to join the great exercise in democracy while preventing the shenanigans a party-jumping free-for-all could inspire. A new lawsuit claiming the closed primaries violate the state’s anti-donation clause by using tax dollars to run elections that benefit political parties could finally open them up.

The 2019 Legislature will have 60 days to pass a budget, shore up state pensions and dole out a billion-dollar oil and gas windfall, while also trying to fulfill myriad other wants and needs. It is essential residents, officials and lawmakers focus on legislation that will truly make a positive difference in the lives of New Mexicans and outcomes in New Mexico.

And opening primaries, which would allow fully 20 percent of registered voters to finally cast ballots in those elections, will.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.