For the first time, New Mexico voters registered with an independent or decline-to-state status will be able to vote in this year’s primary election.

Nearly 24 percent of the state’s roughly 1.345 million registered voters fall into those two categories, and their ballots could make a difference in the outcomes June 7 — particularly in the five-person race for the Republican nomination for governor.

“I believe a large percentage [of voters], hopefully a majority, will take advantage of this. And it could impact close races,” Bob Perls, executive director of voter advocacy group New Mexico Open Elections, said of the new law that allows voters to change their party affiliation in person via same-day voter registration procedures.

The new option is a result of Senate Bill 4, legislation created and passed during a special session in 2020. The bill includes a provision allowing those voters to switch back to their original party status after the primary election.

Though the Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill, with just two Republicans opposing it, the legislation initially faced headwinds in the House of Representatives, where many Democrats joined with Republicans to oppose the bill.

At the time, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Democrats did not like it because it forced independents to register with a major party to take part. But the House ultimately passed the bill 44-26.

Under the format, an independent voter can register as a Republican or Democrat before the primary election June 7 and vote for a candidate in one of the major parties’ campaigns. The day after the election, those voters can reregister as independents.

The new law may only be an initial step in voting rights reform, but one that will increase voter turnout, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said during a virtual news conference on the new law Wednesday.

To date, New Mexico has maintained a closed primary election voting process in which residents had to be registered as Republicans, Democrats or Libertarians in order to cast ballots.

Now, Toulouse Oliver said, voters not affiliated with those parties “have an option to have their voices heard” on primary election day. She stressed voters can only do this in person at county clerk offices in the 28 days leading up to the primary election — a period that begins May 10.

According to Secretary of State online data, 44.5 percent of the state’s registered voters signed up as Democrats and 30.8 percent as Republicans.

While Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has no opponent in the primary, the Republican field is packed and competitive.

Toulouse Oliver said independent or decline-to-state voters cannot register on a “mix and match” basis — meaning they cannot register as a Republican to vote for one of those gubernatorial candidates and then register as a Democrat to vote for a Democrat for a state legislative office.

A 2019 Pew Research Center study noted a large majority of independents — 81 percent — tend to “lean” toward either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. While that study offered a lot of information on the demographics of those voters, it did not give any clue as to which way they voted, when they could, during primaries.

Independents made up 34 percent of the national electorate late in 2020, according to Pew, and a Gallup study that year said it expects that number to rise steadily for at least 15 years.

Perls said such data “reinforces the idea people are more and more frustrated with the warring elements of the two-party system and the fact that candidates are so focused on reelection. And to get reelected in most states they focus on the party base, whether it’s to the left or right.”

He said both major parties likely will have to funnel more resources into appealing to those other-party voters in order to win them over in June.

And that could pay off come November, he said.

“If you can hook a voter to vote for you in the primary, they will probably stick with you in the general,” he said.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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