If last year’s presidential election showed Americans’ deep frustrations with the political establishment, New Mexico’s Bob Perls says neither major party seems to have learned any lessons.
He watched over the weekend as a committee of the state House of Representatives rejected House Bill 206, which would have allowed New Mexico’s growing ranks of independent voters to cast ballots in major-party primary elections.
The 9-4 vote by the House Judiciary Committee quashed the latest effort to end New Mexico’s closed primary elections, a system that Perls and other critics say makes elections less competitive.
As the 60-day legislative session enters its final week, other proposals to open New Mexico’s primary elections are dead in the House and the surviving election reforms are limping.
The session started with not only the proposal to let independents cast ballots in party nominating elections but also a far more sweeping resolution that would have established “jungle primaries” in which every candidate is listed on the same ballot and the top two advance to the general election, regardless of party. A House committee quickly tabled that bill.
Meanwhile, the debate on HB 206 and a similar measure wending through the Senate had until Saturday centered on concerns about the constitutionality of opening up New Mexico’s primary elections. Some lawmakers raised concerns that it would violate the principle of freedom of association to require political parties allow independent voters to cast ballots in primary elections.
But the discussion took a turn in the House Judiciary Committee, where members raised concerns about a provision added by a previous committee that would allow not only independent voters but voters registered with the smallest political parties to cast ballots in the Democratic and Republican primary elections.
Because the Green Party, for example, does not hold its own primary election, voters registered as Greens would be free to vote in the Democratic Party’s primary.
Nineteen percent of New Mexico voters are not affiliated with any party, and 4 percent are registered with minor parties.
Perls said virtually every registered voter would have the option to participate in a first round of voting, whether through a primary election or party convention.
But several legislators argued the provision would allow voters who have declared themselves members of one party to select candidates for another party. At the very least, it would seem inconsistent and at worst an opportunity to manipulate a party nomination, they said.
“Why would we want a member of a different party to vote in a Democratic Party primary?” Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, asked during a committee meeting, summing up the concern.
Some lawmakers say such a process would render political parties virtually meaningless.
The committee tabled the bill. Two Democrats, Reps. Daymon Ely and Javier Martinez, and two Republicans, Minority Leader Nate Gentry and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Dines, voted to keep the bill alive.
Reformers are now making a last push for House Bill 226, which would make it easier for independent and minor party candidates to get on the ballot by lowering the number of signatures a candidate would need to qualify. Independent and minor party candidates currently must get no less than 1 percent of the total number of votes cast for governor in their district.
Even state election officials have called that requirement “almost unattainable.”
Sponsored by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, HB 226 would only require independent and minor party candidates to get the average number of signatures needed by the Republican and Democratic candidates in that same district. That could lower the necessary total by several hundred signatures in some districts.
As for open primaries, Perls said his group will file a lawsuit challenging New Mexico’s election system, arguing that it is illegal for the state to spend tax dollars facilitating the elections of private organizations — political parties — while excluding a large number of voters.
In explaining why he favored the bill for open primaries, Ely described his encounters with uninspired voters while knocking on doors during the last campaign.
“Young people weren’t voting because they didn’t feel part of the process,” he said. “… They felt like candidates were already selected for them.”
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.