SANTA FE – More New Mexico voters cast ballots in this week’s primary election – slightly more than 326,000 – than ever before in a state-run primary contest here, as interest in a heated Democratic presidential primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders appeared to drive a high number of voters to the polls.
Overall voter turnout was nearly 34 percent of those eligible to vote in the race, with roughly 37 percent of registered Democratic voters and about 27 percent of registered Republicans casting ballots, according to unofficial results.
Longtime New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff called the turnout “record-breaking” but said changes in federal election law in the 1990s that made it harder to purge inactive voters from voter rolls means this year’s turnout was not actually the highest percentage-wise in state history.
The contested Democratic presidential contest was the main driver in increased turnout, but a number of contested local primary races – such as the race for an open Bernalillo County Commission seat – may have also played a role, he said.
“I think the Bernie Sanders supporters really wanted to make their voices heard,” said Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc.
In all, Clinton won 23 New Mexico counties in winning the state, compared to 10 for Sanders, though his tally of counties included Bernalillo County, the state’s most populous county.
But Clinton’s overall margin of victory – 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent with more than 214,000 ballots cast by Democratic voters – was narrower than many political insiders expected.
Clinton held a wider lead among Democrats likely to vote in the primary in a Journal Poll conducted in late February, besting Sanders at the time with 47 percent of voters surveyed to his 33 percent.
The margin between the two candidates narrowed in the months leading up to New Mexico’s primary election due in large part to the national momentum of Sanders’ campaign, Sanderoff said.
In addition, University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said news released late Monday, on the eve of the primary election, by The Associated Press that Clinton had secured enough commitments from delegates to become the presumptive Democratic nominee likely factored into voting results.
“I think Hillary Clinton supporters were less likely to show up on Election Day because they felt they didn’t have to,” Atkeson said Wednesday.
In contrast, she said many Sanders backers likely felt angry.
But that advantage was offset by Clinton’s edge among early and absentee voters. She won the vote among such voters by more than 8 percentage points – 54.2 percent to 45.8 percent.
Sanders held three campaign rallies around the state in the lead-up to the primary election – in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the southern New Mexico community of Vado – and Clinton got help from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who held three public events of his own in the weeks before Tuesday. Several high-profile backers also came to New Mexico to stump for Clinton.
There were fewer voters – and fewer contested races – on the Republican side, as Donald Trump had effectively clinched the GOP presidential nominee more than a month ago, after the last of his rivals dropped out of the race.
“That huge gap (in voter turnout) was because the primary was effectively over for Republican voters,” Atkeson said.
No major voting problems or long lines were reported Tuesday, despite the increase in voter turnout.
Kari Fresquez, elections director in the Secretary of State’s Office, said Wednesday that officials expected a high turnout and had analyzed turnout patterns in other states in the lead-up to New Mexico’s primary election to prepare.
Several counties were also given an increased number of vote-counting machines to handle the expected surge in voters.
“We had plenty of support on the ground in the right places,” Fresquez told the Journal.