Independent voters don’t have a voice in New Mexico’s primary elections, and lawyers are financing judicial campaigns.
Two good-government bills addressing these election shortcomings have been introduced in the Legislature, and it’s time to pass them both and make them law.
House Bill 79, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Miguel Garcia and Daymon Ely and Sen. Katy Duhigg and Republican Sen. Mark Moores, would allow voters who aren’t affiliated with a major political party to vote in primary elections. This is overdue; in many races primary elections determine the ultimate winner. Candidates from Lea to Rio Arriba counties are often unopposed in the general election, leaving voters from one major political party to decide the next sheriff, county clerk or commissioner.
Under HB 79, independent voters could choose a Republican or Democratic ballot in the primary but keep their status as an unaffiliated voter. The change could greatly boost primary voter participation – more than a fifth of the state’s voters are registered as independents, also known as declined to state. According to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, independent voters accounted for 21.7% of registered voters. Time to enfranchise that part of the electorate.
HB 79 is currently stuck in the House Judiciary Committee after an unusual tie vote Friday blocked it from advancing to the full House. The bipartisan bill has met bipartisan opposition, which is unfortunate. Democrats and Republicans seemingly always agree upon binary elections.
Legislators passed a law last year allowing independent voters to participate in primaries, but only if they agree to register with a political party immediately before casting a ballot. Many voters don’t want to do that. They like being independents, and election laws shouldn’t diminish their independent voices. The state’s 295,500 registered independents deserve to have a say in who represents them, as Mario Jimenez of Common Cause New Mexico notes.
Another good-government bill would expand public campaign financing to more types of judicial races; it cleared its first Senate committee last week after several sitting judges testified in support.
Candidates running for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have been able to qualify for public financing since 2008, but not lower court judges. Senate Bill 160, sponsored by Duhigg and Majority Floor Leader Sen. Peter Wirth, would allow District Court judges to qualify for public campaign financing after they obtain a number of small contributions from voters to prove their electability.
Under the current system, District Court candidates have to raise private funds for their campaigns. It’s an unseemly system often opposed by members of the judiciary, because who donates to a district court campaign? Lawyers, for one – who bill-backer Trish Lopez correctly says “shouldn’t be financing judges who are presiding over their cases.”
Retired Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez says SB 160 would help “remove the appearance courts are a pay-to-play system of justice” and re-establish judicial independence. We agree. It’s time to end the days of forcing judges to shill for contributions while trying to follow arcane guidelines discouraging them from knowing their donors’ identities. SB 160 cleared the Senate Rules Committee Friday by a 7-3 vote and now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
HB 79 and SB 160 are much-needed reforms – one to enfranchise more voters, one to remove the compromising nature of judges accepting campaign contributions from attorneys who may appear in their courtrooms. Our judiciary committees need to get both moving to floor votes and on to the other chamber. Every New Mexican who is registered to vote deserves to be heard; helping ensure integrity in judicial races will help restore faith in the legal system.
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.