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Dems break ice on independents

New Mexico Democrats on Wednesday signaled support for allowing independent voters to participate in New Mexico primary elections that for decades have been open only to members of major political parties.

The effort is being taken up by two Democratic state legislators from Albuquerque. Sen. Bill O’Neill and Rep. Emily Kane planned to announce today that they will introduce legislation in January that would end the exclusion of independent voters or voters who decline to state a party affiliation when they register.

Republicans are still opposed to the idea, state Republican Party Chairman John Billingsley said Wednesday.

“Open primaries dilute party principles,” Billingsley said in a statement. “Independents may register with the party that most suits them, and vote.”

The O’Neill-Kane plan was shared in an email Wednesday by the Democratic Party of New Mexico, which previously has voiced strong opposition against opening its primary elections to include any non-Democrats. The two current major parties, the Democratic and Republican parties, hold primary elections the same date in June but on separate ballots and only party members are eligible to participate in the respective primaries.

Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman said he personally has changed his mind and now supports opening primaries to include independents. He said declining voter participation in New Mexico primary elections and a recent spike in young voters registering as independents prompted his change of heart.

“We are a party of inclusion. We want more people participating in our primary,” Bregman said.

Voter turnout in this year’s primary election was about 20 percent of eligible voters. Meanwhile, about 38 percent of voters between ages 18 and 24 have either declined to state a party affiliation or register with a minor party, according to recent voter registration data.

O’Neill said he hopes extending primary participation to independent voters would draw younger voters to consider Democratic candidates and provide a sharp increase in voter engagement.

“We are talking about inviting independent voters that comprise about 20 percent (of statewide voter registrations), issuing an invitation to get involved,” O’Neill said. “How is that a bad thing?”

O’Neill said his proposal would not allow registered Republicans to vote in the Democratic Party primary election or vice versa.

A proposed constitutional amendment to open primaries to independent voters was introduced in the Legislature in 2012, but failed to clear committee. O’Neill said he is optimistic a new effort will draw more support.

If the proposed legislation fails during the next legislative session, Bregman said he would push for the Democratic Party to act independently to open its primaries even if Republican primaries remained closed.

Fred Nathan, executive director of the independent think tank Think New Mexico and a longtime advocate for allowing independent voters to cast primary election ballots, said Wednesday that the increased interest in open primaries might be “a turning point.”

“I am hopeful that opening primaries to independents will become more of a bipartisan movement, since every New Mexican benefits when voter participation increases and more people feel invested in their government,” Nathan said.

A lawsuit filed by Nathan’s group in June seeking to open primary elections to independent voters still is pending.