Focus on Judicial Public Financing, Redistricting, Open Primaries This Session

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This past year, Common Cause New Mexico—along with many other groups— spent the majority of our time ensuring that this historic pandemic did not deter New Mexico citizens from exercising their most important right: the right to vote.  For months, we worked with community partners to instruct voters on registration and absentee voting, worked with county clerks and Native American groups to ensure ballot access, ran a hotline, and fielded hundreds of election protection volunteers for the general and primary elections.  We are delighted with our state’s record (68%) turnout and our hats are off to all of the poll workers, election officials, community advocates, and especially, the numbers of engaged voters who made this happen. We hope that many of the policies that helped make voting easier this year will continue into the future.

And now, onto the 2021 Legislative Session.

Our first legislative priority is the expansion of public financing to district court judges. Currently, this voluntary system covers only the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.  Expanding our currently successful state program is the best way to ensure that our judges are protected from potential conflicts of interest. This also allows them to focus their time on their court’s case dockets, not on trying to raise large campaign contributions.

Under the current system, judicial candidates are obligated to raise campaign funds from individuals and corporations, but at the same time, they must ensure that they do not know which donors contributed to their campaigns. This is done in order to comply with the Judicial Ethics Code.  This precarious position — raising money from donors and then turning a blind eye at fundraising events as donors’ checks are passed to their campaign treasurer — is absurd.

Without having a public financing option for judicial district court races, the bulk of our state’s judiciary remains vulnerable to outside special interest groups’ spending, many of whom have already been injecting vast amounts of “dark money” into judicial elections throughout the country.

In 2016, we conducted interviews of former judges, justices, attorneys and current district judges regarding the funding of judicial campaigns. Our results showed that the vast majority of our judiciary and members of the bar—both Republicans and Democrats — wanted to see our state’s public financing program expanded to include all judicial races. 

This year, Sen. Katy Duhigg and Sen. Peter Wirth will introduce legislation expanding judicial public financing.

Another legislative priority is to allow independent and “decline to state” voters to vote in partisan primary elections. Sometimes known as “Open Primaries,” the particular bill we support enables the growing number of unaffiliated voters in New Mexico to vote in state-financed primaries without changing their registration to affiliate with one party or another. Without the ability to vote in primaries, approximately one third of our electorate is shut out from these important decisions. This is critical because elections are often decided in either the Democratic or Republican primary since many districts are “safe” Republican or Democratic areas, where the registration edge precludes any real competition.  

Senator Duhigg and Representative Daymon Ely will carry this legislation, which does not require a voter to sign up for a specific party.

A 2019 poll taken for Common Cause indicated that 82% of all registered voters surveyed favor opening primaries. Since then, the number of DTS voters has increased, with many younger voters declining to affiliate because they are averse to the two-party system.

We also will support legislation to address long-overdue redistricting reforms. For years, our annual polling has shown strong public support (57% in 2020) to create an independent commission to draw district lines. This year, we have been working with Fair Districts New Mexico, to introduce other reforms that would allow increased transparency and public participation in this decennial process.  Senator Jerry Ortiz Y Pino and Senator Mark Moores will introduce reforms that are focused on reducing partisanship and the tendency to protect incumbents in the redistricting process—both of which lead to gerrymandering. From our elections work to our work on gerrymandering, all of these pieces are interconnected, and lift up the foundations of good government and inclusive democracy in New Mexico.

Common Cause is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. We work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process. The views in this column do not reflect the view or opinions of New Mexico In Depth. This column first appeared in New Mexico In Depth’s 2021 Legislative Special Edition.

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