The 2016 election season delivered some surprises that had little to do with President-elect Donald Trump.
A record number of New Mexicans – over 326,000 – voted in the primary elections. Libertarian presidential candidate/former Gov. Gary Johnson took 9.3 percent of the general election vote in New Mexico (and 6.3 percent in his native North Dakota), crossing the 5-percent threshold to get his Libertarian Party major-party recognition and public funding for elections in those states.
But it was no surprise that a large number of New Mexico’s races were decided long before the state’s June primaries were held. Still more were decided in those primary elections and long before a general election ballot was cast.
Many recently elected or re-elected legislators simply walked right back into office without ever having to make a case for continuing to be responsible for the state’s budget and laws.
For the 42 seats in the New Mexico Senate, 27 incumbents faced no opposition in 2016 – not in the primary and not in the general. Thirty-six did not face an opponent in the primary. Only one senator faced opposition in both, Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales.
For the 70 seats in the New Mexico House, 57 incumbents faced no challenger in the primary election, and 37 incumbents faced no opposition in the general election.
Lack of choice certainly contributes to the argument for moving the state’s June primaries up – New Mexico is one of the last states to hold its primaries, meaning its voters have virtually no say in winnowing down the national candidate field. (Case in point, Trump was the only active Republican candidate on the ballot by the time N.M.’s Republican primary rolled around.)
Lack of choice at the state level also likely contributed to voter apathy – despite a contentious, even vitriolic, election season, turnout in the general election here was lower than in the last two presidential elections, with just 61.6 percent of the state’s registered voters putting action to their political convictions by casting ballots.
Both choice and turnout could be addressed in part by allowing every registered New Mexico voter to cast a ballot in primary elections. Independent voter David Crum has said as much in his lawsuit, which is pending before the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Crum is challenging the constitutionality of New Mexico’s closed primary system, and in his filing points out that 199 out of 341 public offices were decided in the 2014 primary because only one major party had candidates on the ballot. He contends that 240,000 unaffiliated voters were “denied the right to vote” in the primaries, meaning they had no say in the ultimate selection of many judges, county officials and legislators.
Those voters, around one of every five registered, are officially DTS, as in Decline To State a party preference. While a majority of the state’s youngest voters register as DTS, so have 32 percent of those age 25 to 34, 23 percent of those age 35 to 49, 17 percent of those age 50 to 64 and 12 percent of those 65 and over, according to Research and Polling Inc.
And because all of those tens of thousands of New Mexicans decline to pledge allegiance to a party, its bosses and its ideology, they are not allowed to vote in the publicly financed primary elections here, or to help drive choice beyond party base extremes, or to help select many of the duly elected court, county and state officials.
Yet they still get to pay for the elections. They still get to pay their taxes that pay the salaries and per diem of those elected officials. And they still get to follow all the rules and laws those officials put in play and enforce.
They just do not get to cast a ballot in June.
At a time when the political discussion has become so polarized and polarizing, it is only right and fair to allow all voters to participate; to try to encourage parties and candidates to broaden their appeal to all they will govern rather than to the extreme bases that currently rule primary election day; to encourage more people to run for office; and to stop disenfranchising around a quarter of a million New Mexicans who to date have not been allowed to weigh in on many races that determine who will run their courts and governments.
The Journal has long supported a modified open primary system that would require independent voters to pick one or the other major political party in a primary, allowing them to join the great exercise in Democracy while discouraging the shenanigans a party-jumping free-for-all could inspire.
The 2017 legislative session is a long one, meaning lawmakers have 60 days to consider issues beyond the intricacies of balancing the budget. And while they clearly have a vested interest in keeping competition at bay, they should do what’s right for the state, capitalize on the political fervor of the 2016 races, and encourage choice and participation by opening primaries to all registered voters.
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.