NM takes 'baby step' toward open primaries - Albuquerque Journal

NM takes ‘baby step’ toward open primaries

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For the first time, New Mexico’s independent voters this year can show up at the polls in a primary election and cast a ballot.

But there’s a catch: They will have to register with a major party before accepting the ballot.

It’s a small step intended to address the growing number of voters who register without a party affiliation – some of whom show up at the polls without realizing they can’t vote in the primary.

“The more participation we have in our democracy, the better,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico’s chief elections officer, said Wednesday in a news conference.

Lawmakers authorized the change in 2020, but this year’s primary election will be the first allowing voters to take advantage of the new rule.

It’s part of a broader policy shift allowing same-day voter registration in New Mexico.

Under the new law, voters who are independent or a member of a minor political party may change their registration at the polls and receive a ballot for the major party of their choice.

The old system closed the voter rolls four weeks before Election Day.

Bob Perls. a former state legislator and U.S. diplomat, described the change as a “baby step” toward opening up New Mexico’s primary elections to a broader group of voters.

He said he hopes the change will prompt candidates to design their campaigns to reach voters beyond their party’s base – especially important in a state like New Mexico where some candidates face opposition only in the primary, not in the general election.

It’s an incentive, Perls said, “for all candidates to listen to all voters all the time.”

‘Disenchanted’

The number of voters in New Mexico registered as “decline to state” – the designation for independents – has shot up 26% over the last eight years, or about five times as fast as the voting rolls overall.

The state had 239,000 independents in 2014, for example, compared with 302,000 this year. About 1.3 million people are registered to vote overall, growth of a little over 5% since 2014.

In an interview, Brian Sanderoff, a political analyst and president of Research & Polling Inc., said independents are disproportionately younger than Democratic and Republican voters.

They also tend to turn out at a lower rate in general elections, he said.

“Younger adults are more disenchanted with the major parties – the Democrats and Republicans – and they’re more likely to register as independent of those major parties,” Sanderoff said.

Their numbers have shot up dramatically. In 1990, independents made up 8% of New Mexico’s registered voters, Sanderoff said.

The potential impact of the new law, he said, will depend on whether campaigns – either candidates or outside groups – target unaffiliated voters and try to persuade them to cast ballots in the primary.

Not only would independent voters have to be motivated to show up, Sanderoff said, but they’d have to be willing to fill out the paperwork at the polls to change their affiliation – a process election workers say takes five to 10 minutes.

“Frankly, I suspect most independents aren’t even aware of this change,” Sanderoff said.

Nevertheless, they make up a significant part of the potential electorate.

About 23% of New Mexico’s voters are unaffiliated, and another 1% are registered with minor parties. About 45% of the state’s voters are Democrats, 31% are Republicans and 1% are Libertarians. (The figures don’t add up to 100% because of rounding.)

ID required

The new law comes with some limits.

Independents, for example, won’t be able to mail in absentee ballots during the primary.

The ability to register with a party and immediately cast a ballot, however, will be available at Election Day voting locations and at every county clerk’s office during early voting.

The availability varies at satellite early voting places. In Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Doña Ana counties, the registration option will be available at all early voting locations.

But in some counties, it may be available at only some early voting places.

To use the same-day registration system, a resident must bring a New Mexico driver’s license or ID card issued through the state Motor Vehicle Division or a similar document with a photo verifying their identity and address.

Voters who want to switch back to independent after the primary can go to nmvote.org after casting a ballot to update their registration.

The primary election is June 7. Absentee voting begins May 10, and expanded early voting begins May 21.

Toulouse Oliver said the change will be meaningful given that every primary election draws some would-be voters who aren’t eligible to participate because they’re not registered with a major party.

Sometimes, she said, they’re not even aware they never registered with a party and are disappointed to learn their voice won’t be heard.

“As an election administrator, that is one of the most heartbreaking things I ever have to do,” she said.

 

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