Move to open primaries represents growing number of unaffiliated voters

More
Christa Frederickson just after she voted in the 2016 primary election.

Christa Fredrickson is a registered Democrat in Doña Ana County, but says that’s only because she needed to be a Democrat in order to vote in a primary election a few years ago. She has more than once changed her party affiliation to vote in a particular  primary election, because she thinks they’re important.

But she doesn’t consider herself a Democrat or a Republican, or a Libertarian for that matter. Those are the major parties in New Mexico, currently. And taxpayers pay for the cost of running the primary elections that determine who will represent those parties on general election ballots.

“I find it frustrating because it doesn’t provide an accurate depiction of who I am,” she said, about registering as a Democrat or Republican.“I don’t think people should be left out because they don’t want to adhere to a two-party system, and to me, the primaries are very important — more important than my political identity.”

It’s not uncommon for the outcome of one of those primary elections to determine who will hold a seat because in many “safe” districts the Democrat or Republican candidate will run unopposed in the general election. In 2018, four House seats were determined in the primary election.

New Mexico has closed primaries, which means you have to be registered with a party to vote in its primary election. But if primaries were open to all voters, not just to the members of major parties, Fredrickson would register as an Independent, joining about a quarter of the registered voters in the state who are currently shut out of primary elections.

Two proposals before state legislators, HB 92 and SB 418, would allow voters like her to simply show up to a primary election and vote. And if one passes, New Mexico would join 34 other states that currently have some form of open primaries. Unaffiliated voters would choose to affiliate with one of the major parties by requesting a ballot. They would be given an absentee ballot for the party they chose to affiliate with. If Senate Bill 418 passes, a major party will be able to choose a closed primary, but the party would have to pay for its own election.

Bob Perls, president of advocacy group New Mexico Open Primaries, says that all voters should have the right to vote in primaries because everyone’s voices should be heard, regardless of party affiliation.

“The more people participate and engage in voting, the more legitimate the outcome of the races are,” he said.

In New Mexico, open primaries would be good news for a growing number of registered voters.

The percentage of “Decline-to-State” voters, which is what the state calls independent voters, has grown significantly since 1990, with Democrats being the main group experiencing a corresponding decline.

Nearly a quarter of voters in New Mexico cannot take part in primary elections — registered voters who either declined to select a party, or are not affiliated with a major party.   

In 2000, 12 percent of voters did not select a party, in 2010 it was 16 percent of voters, and today it is 22 percent. Almost half of DTS voters who registered in 2018 and 2019 are under the age of 35, according to Elections Compliance Officer Anna Gurule at New Mexico’s Bureau of Elections.

“That’s one in four of the voters in the state that are shut out of the primary and shut out of the decision to decide who will be on the general ballot,” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque, during a House Consumer & Public Affairs committee hearing, arguing that HB 93 would increase voter participation.

Her co-sponsor, Democratic Rep. Joy Garratt, said 17 percent of voters in her district on the westside of Albuquerque are unaffiliated. And she said it was unfair that those registered voters had to pick up a portion of the tab through their tax dollars — to the tune of $8,490,000 in 2016 — for elections they can’t participate in.

Deputy Secretary of State John Blair told the committee his boss, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, “strongly supports” the bill.

Political parties leery

Democratic Party Chair Marg Elliston said same-day registration would be a better option to open primaries.

“Our party platform does not take a position in this discussion,” she said in an email. “However, as party chair, I strongly support Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s proposal and current legislation that would enact same-day voter registration in New Mexico.”

But Alex Curtas, the Secretary of State’s director of communications, said same-day registration would not fix the problem for DTS voters.

“A lot of this depends on that provision of not being able to switch your party under the current idea of same-day registration, because you wouldn’t be able to switch your party in order to vote in the primary,” he said.

Indeed, House Bill 86 to allow same-day registration states that, “a voter shall not be allowed to change party affiliation when registering at an early voting site or polling place during a primary election.”

Chris Luchini, chair of the Libertarian Party of New Mexico, said he would oppose letting voters from other parties participate in Libertarian primaries, but is open to allowing decline to state voters to vote in Libertarian primaries. The Libertarian Party, while quite small compared to the Democrat and Republican parties, currently has major party status in New Mexico which entitles it to appear on primary election ballots.

“It may be advantageous to allow Decline-To-State voters to vote in our primaries, however I, for one, would oppose allowing anyone registered in any other political party from voting in a Libertarian primary,” he said in an email.

New Mexico In Depth sent several requests to Republican Party representatives asking their position on the bills, but have yet to hear back from them.

Halfway through the session, and with Democratic party leaders in firm control of what passes to the governor’s desk, both bills look to have an uphill battle. HB 92 has passed one committee, but has two more to go. Three committee assignments generally means a bill doesn’t have enough support among lawmakers. The Senate measure has yet to receive a hearing, but has only two committee assignments.

***

Ximena Tapia is a New Mexico In Depth reporting Fellow from New Mexico State University.