One lawmaker wants to give political parties a choice of whether to let independent voters participate in primary elections.
The option is: Let independents vote or pay for the election yourselves.
Backers hope Senate Bill 418 will win over legislators wary of letting just any voter help pick their party’s nominees.
If it does, the bill could also end for now a long-running debate over the role of independent voters, who are a growing segment of the electorate in New Mexico. It is one of 14 states where a voter must be affiliated with a party to cast a ballot in a primary.
The bill has an unlikely champion in its sponsor, Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque. He has voted against open primaries in the past.
Moores has been sympathetic to the argument that requiring political parties to let independents vote in primaries would violate the rights of free association.
“The government should not be able to tell the Republican Party or the Democrat Party how to do it,” he said.
But, Moores said, taxpayers should not have to cover the costs of a party’s primary if independents do not have the right to participate.
In fact, a group of independent voters represented by former state Attorney General Paul Bardacke is making the case that the New Mexico’s closed primary system is unconstitutional.
“If the taxpayers are going to pay for those primaries, they should be open,” Moores said.
His bill would require that major parties allow independents and voters registered with minor parties to participate in the primaries.
Voters would simply request a party’s ballot when they go to the polls. Voters registered with major parties would not be able to vote in the primaries of other parties. A registered Democrat, for example, could not vote in a Republican primary.
If a party chooses not to open primaries to independent voters and covers the election costs, it could largely make its own rules and choose how to run the election. This could open the way to experimentation in voting.
Advocates for open primaries have argued for a range of bills in recent years — none successful.
But groups such as New Mexico Open Primaries say opening the primaries would only be fair and would increase voter turnout.
Twenty years ago, only 10 percent of the state’s voters were not affiliated with a political party. Now 22 percent of New Mexico’s registered voters are independents.
And in communities such as Santa Fe County, a dominant party often runs candidates unopposed in general elections. For example, the only candidates for sheriff in Santa Fe County last year were Democrats. So Republicans and independents did not get to vote for a sheriff unless they switched to the Democratic Party to cast a ballot in the decisive primary.
The House of Representatives is weighing legislation that also would require major parties to open primaries to independent and minor party voters. But under that measure, House Bill 93, parties would not have a choice of complying.
Other Democrats argue that opening up the primaries would weaken political parties.
“What they’re getting at is they want to make the parties irrelevant,” said Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “What we ought to be doing is strengthening the parties and allowing more minor parties.”
Moores’ bill will get its first hearing in front of the Senate Rules Committee.