The Roundhouse had heartening news Wednesday for a growing number of New Mexico voters who aren’t affiliated with a major political party and would like the state to end a primary election system that excludes them. Lawmakers on the House of Representatives’ State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted 6-3 to advance a bill that would allow all registered voters to cast ballots in primaries. Under the measure, independent voters and those registered with a minority party could simply request a ballot from one of the major parties, with no requirement to alter the party affiliation on their registration. It’s not the first time state legislators have considered such a measure. Previous efforts over the last five years have failed to reach the House or Senate floor for a vote, dying early in the committee process.
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.
Thursday marks the halfway point of the 2017 New Mexico Legislature’s 60-day run in Santa Fe. And while half the time is gone, perhaps 90 percent of the work remains. All-important debates over how to spend the public’s money, where to get it and how much to keep in reserve, are yet to be resolved. How much should be devoted to keeping the schools running? What kind of tax breaks are effective in stimulating a sputtering economy?
Voters unaffiliated with either of the two major political parties — currently barred from participating in primary elections — would be allowed to choose either a Democratic or Republican primary ballot under a bill that unanimously cleared a House committee Tuesday. But judging by the reaction a similar bill received in a Senate committee earlier this week, the House bill could run into trouble if it makes it to the other side of the Roundhouse. The House Local Government, Elections, Land Grant and Cultural Affairs Committee gave a do-pass recommendation to House Bill 206, sponsored by Reps. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, and Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. Garcia Richard says her bill is aimed at increasing voter turnout.
An attempt to open primaries failed after the state Supreme Court ruled against an Albuquerque resident. David Crum, who is registered to vote but is not affiliated with any political party, sought to end the closed primary system, saying it violates a portion of the state constitution. The State Supreme Court upheld a district court ruling dismissing the case, saying that the current restrictions requiring that primary voters be registered with a major political party at least 28 days before the primary and only allowing voters to vote in primaries of that party were “reasonably modest burdens which further the State’s interests in securing the purity of and efficiently administering primary elections.”
The Republican Party of New Mexico opposed Crum’s suit and said it would “unconstitutionally infringe on RPNM’s freedom of association,” according to the Supreme Court ruling. A state district court agreed and granted the party’s motion to dismiss. Crum appealed the dismissal, prompting the Supreme Court to review the case.
A growing number of voters don’t want to register as either Republicans or Democrats, so a bipartisan group of lawmakers is proposing legislation that would allow independents to vote in New Mexico primary elections. Independent and third-party voters can’t participate in New Mexico’s June primaries, often a point of contention because 23 percent of the state’s voters are not affiliated with the major political parties and state funds pay for the primaries. “New Mexico has the highest percentage of non-competitive elections in the nation,” said Bob Perls, a former Democratic lawmaker, who heads a group called New Mexico Open Primaries. It is pushing two measure that would change how primary elections are run. One proposal, House Bill 206, would allow unaffiliated voters to choose either a Democratic or Republican ballot in primary elections.
A proposal that would allow voters to decide whether or not those outside the two major political parties can participate in primary elections passed its first committee on Saturday. Right now, only Democrats can participate in Democratic primaries and only Republicans can participate in Republican primaries. The proposal brought forward by Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, would change that. The bill passed on a narrow 5-3 vote, with all four Democrats on the panel being joined by committee chair James Smith, R-Sandia Park.