A controversial new change to New Mexico’s primary voting process might not even make it to the next primary election.
The Legislature passed a measure during the special session that would allow independent voters to cast ballots in primary elections by registering with a major party on the day of the election.
Yet House Speaker Brian Egolf said Tuesday that new provision probably wouldn’t survive, even if it’s signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“We will look at that open primary provision in January,” said Egolf, D-Santa Fe, referring to the 60-day session in 2021. “I think it’s somewhat problematic as drafted, and I think we can say with a high degree of certainty that the provisions currently in law will not be in place come primary 2022.”
The change to the primary process came from an unexpected amendment added to Senate Bill 4, which aims to streamline the vote-by-mail process if the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing during November’s general election.
The amendment to the bill, which was proposed by Sen. John Sapien, passed with bipartisan support in the Senate but became contentious in the House, where it triggered a number of Democrats to initially join with Republicans to vote down the entire bill.
After a caucus meeting, the House took a revote; those same Democrats changed their votes to support the bill and it passed, sending it to the governor’s desk.
Egolf said Tuesday the Democrats who voted against it at first favored the coronavirus-related elections measures in the bill and expected the legislation to pass. But they wanted to express opposition to the amendment pertaining to primary voting.
They opposed it, Egolf said, because it forces independents to register with a major party in order to take part in a primary election.
Under the amendment, independent voters would be able to cast a ballot in the primary only if they affiliate with a major party, and they would keep that registration unless they change it later.
Asked about the criticism, Sapien said Tuesday that the measure would allow independent voters, who he said comprise 20 percent to 25 percent of the electorate, to have a greater voice in the process.
Such residents, who also are referred to as “Declined to State” voters, currently need to register with a party at least 28 days before a primary in order to participate.
“It’s important that the independents, 25 percent of the voting public, get an opportunity to have a voice that’s equal to that of the major parties,” said Sapien, who is leaving his Senate post at the end of this year.
During the House debate, some Democrats criticized the amendment for being unrelated to the main part of the bill. Since then, it’s been heavily criticized by some for being unnecessary during an emergency session and for not allowing for a true open primary process.
Yet House Democrats ultimately voted for the bill because they believed it was important not to scrap the main part of the legislation, which was originally backed by the governor, Egolf said.
The overall legislation, an election reform bill , would allow county clerks to automatically send absentee ballot applications to registered voters for this November’s general election, among other provisions.
The bill was proposed after county clerks were overwhelmed by the volume of absentee ballots they received during this month’s primary election, leading to delays in tallying results in several areas of the state.
Sapien, who proposed the amendment to Senate Bill 4, said Tuesday he and other senators tried for years to pass a bill allowing for true open primaries, which would let independent voters cast a ballot without registering with a party.
But he said both major parties have long opposed such a measure, and the amendment was the closest he could get.
Sapien said House Democrats who initially voted against the bill were told the amendment would be taken out next year. He didn’t say who had promised this.
“The progressive Democrats were promised that this part of the bill would be removed during the next session,” he said. And that’s how they got their vote.”
Should the bill become law, the pandemic-related provisions would be temporary and would be repealed at the end of 2020.
The amendment pertaining to primaries, however, would be permanent unless there is further legislative action.