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Tie vote keeps open primaries bill in committee

In this 2020 file photo, stickers are available to voters at the Bandelier Elementary School voter center in Albuquerque. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — An unusual tie vote on Friday blocked the advancement of legislation to open primary elections to independent voters in New Mexico.

Competing motions to recommend passage or rejection of the bill each failed on 6-6 votes.

The proposal is now stuck in the House Judiciary Committee, preventing it from moving on to the full House for consideration.

“It’s officially in limbo,” declared Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat and judiciary chairwoman.

The proposal, House Bill 79, would have allowed voters who aren’t affiliated with a major party to vote in primary elections. They could choose a party’s ballot in the primary, but their status as an unaffiliated voter wouldn’t be changed as a result.

Legislation passed in a special session last year allows independent voters to participate in primaries, but only if they if they agree to register with a political party immediately before casting their ballot.

But supporters of the new proposal said it would fix potential legal problems with last year’s law and allow voters to keep their independent status while casting a ballot.

They argued that many political districts in New Mexico lean so heavily Democratic or Republican that the primary election is the only real chance to pick a candidate. In some cases, there may not even be an opposing candidate on the ballot in the general election.

“A vast amount of registered voters do not have a say in who represents them,” Mario Jimenez of Common Cause New Mexico said. “We see this as a good government piece of legislation.”

The measure had the backing of Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. But opposition was also bipartisan.

Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said the proposal would interfere with the power of each party’s members to pick its own candidates. A conservative-leaning independent, for example, might choose to vote in a Democratic primary, he said, in an attempt to nominate a weak candidate.

And anyone who wants to vote in a primary, McQueen said, is free to change their registration.

“When I hear people are locked out, that’s false,” he said. “They are free and welcome to participate. All they have to do is check a box, pick a party.”

Six Democrats voted in favor of the bill, and opposition came from four Republicans and Democrats McQueen and House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe.

Sponsoring the measure were Democratic Reps. Miguel P. Garcia of Albuquerque and Daymon Ely of Corrales, in addition to Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, and Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque.

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