SANTA FE – A proposal to open New Mexico’s primary elections to independent voters survived – just barely – its first challenge in the state Senate.
The bill made it out of the Senate Rules Committee on Monday without a recommendation and now heads to the Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before reaching the Senate floor.
But that was only after a motion to recommend passage of the bill failed on a tie vote.
A similar proposal, meanwhile, is also advancing through the House, though it has not yet reached the floor.
Monday’s action centered on Senate Bill 205, sponsored by Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales.
The bill would allow people who decline to state a party affiliation – independents, as they’re often called – to participate in a primary election. About one in five New Mexico voters falls into that category.
Sapien’s proposal wouldn’t allow people to cross party lines. In other words, Democrats or Libertarians couldn’t opt to vote in the Republican primary.
Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said the proposal would encourage voter participation in primary elections and force the major parties to pay more attention to young people, who are more likely to register as independents.
It would also give more people a voice in races that are decided in the primaries, he said. Some candidates are unopposed in general elections.
“Most districts are so heavily drawn to favor one party or the other,” Steinborn said.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, argued against the proposal. The only real purpose of political parties is to nominate candidates, he said, and there’s no downside to registering with one.
It isn’t as if the Democratic Party charged dues or required people to agree with every part of its platform, Ortiz y Pino said. And it’s easy to change your registration online ahead of a primary if you want to participate, he said.
Sapien’s bill “just seems to me a solution in search of a problem,” Ortiz y Pino said.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and former state elections director, proposed allowing the major parties to decide themselves whether to allow independents – or even members of other parties – to participate. But that idea didn’t win approval.
In the end, the committee voted 6-2 to forward Sapien’s bill without a recommendation, with three Democrats and three Republicans in favor. Ivey-Soto and Ortiz y Pino voted “no.”