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Gov. favors widened primary eligibility

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said Thursday that she would support legislation to allow voters who decline to state their party affiliation to cast ballots in New Mexico primary elections, a plan so far pitched by Democrats.

“I think that it’s important that every individual who can vote is able to vote,” Martinez told the Journal on Thursday in Albuquerque.

“Just because they don’t see themselves as completely Republican or completely a Democrat doesn’t mean that they don’t have candidates that they want to vote for, but because they haven’t declared a party aren’t able to vote at all,” Martinez said.

The governor’s support for expanding primary election participation flew in the face of a statement a day earlier by New Mexico Republican Party Chairman John Billingsley, who said that allowing decline-to-state or independent voters to participate in major party primaries would “dilute” elections and diminish party values.

But after hearing of Martinez’s support for expanded primaries, the Republican Party chairman said he would evaluate the proposal and reconsider his position, party spokeswoman Emily Strickler said Thursday.

“There are forms of partial (expanded) primaries that he could warm up to, so to speak, but there definitely needs to be more details,” Strickler said.

New Mexico has for decades allowed only registered Republicans or Democrats to participate in their parties’ respective primary elections. Some independent and decline-to-state voters contend they are disenfranchised by the system.

Sen. Bill O’Neill and Rep. Emily Kane, both Albuquerque Democrats, formally announced on Thursday plans to push legislation in January to expand primary election voting to include independent and decline-to-state voters.

The proposal would not allow Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries or Democrats to vote in Republican primaries, O’Neill said, referring to a so-called “open primary” system.

Supporters say the change is needed in light of dismal primary election turnouts, including this year’s election in June, in which about 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Supporters of the primary election change also highlight a surge of young voters who are shunning party identification. About 38 percent of voters age 18 to 24 are registered as a decline-to-state or with minor parties, outpacing the number of young voters registered either Democratic or Republican.

Before Martinez voiced her support Thursday, the push to expand primary participation in New Mexico was largely a Democratic effort. The only elected officials attending a news conference earlier Thursday to announce the effort were Democrats.

On Wednesday, Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman said he personally had dropped his opposition to expanded primaries and now backs the effort to include independents and decline-to-state voters as a way of increasing voter engagement.

Kane, one of the prospective sponsors of the primary election legislation, said she welcomed the governor’s support.

“That makes me very hopeful,” Kane said. “That’s really good news. I really believe it’s a nonpartisan position.”

Attorney General Gary King, the Democratic nominee challenging Martinez’s re-election effort this year, said Thursday that he supports expanding primary election participation.

However, King said he would go a step further to allow any registered voter to cast a ballot in whichever primary they choose, including allowing Democrats and Republicans to cross over party lines.

“I’m amenable to any sort of system that would be fair to everybody concerned,” King said in an interview.

King’s support comes despite his position as state attorney general in opposition to the practice. His office is fighting a lawsuit filed in June that asks the courts to extend primary election voting rights to decline-to-state and independent voters.

King defended that official action, saying his job is to defend the laws enacted by the state, including the laws currently providing for closed primary elections.