Important election reforms remain alive in the Legislature — but the bill to allow voters to participate in primaries without declaring allegiance to a political party is stalled in the House. It deserves better.
Senate Bill 73, sponsored by state Sens. Bill O’Neill and Siah Correa Hemphill and state Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, all Democrats, would allow decline-to-state and minor-party registered voters to participate in primary elections — and they would not have to change their registration to do so.
This matters because an increasing number of voters in the state are declaring independence from political parties. Such decline-to-state voters can’t participate in primary elections without affiliating with a party.
Because many races are decided in June when primaries take place, these voters have little voice in how they are governed. In Santa Fe, many Democratic candidates — whether for sheriff, county commissioner or magistrate — lack a Republican opponent come November. The same is true for Republican candidates running in Curry or Otero counties. No Democrats oppose them.
Forcing people to declare an affiliation, is, as open primary advocate Bob Perls says, an invasion of privacy. A vote is a private matter. If a citizen does not want his or her party preference known, that should not preclude participation in the electoral process. Perls, a former state representative, is the founder of New Mexico Open Elections. His group is dedicated to what they term a radical idea: “No New Mexican should be required to join a political party to fully and fairly exercise their right to vote.”
The open primary bill still alive in the Legislature has made it through the Senate and one House committee. It is stuck in the House Judiciary Committee, where its chairwoman, Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, has not scheduled a hearing. Time, as we know, is running out. The session ends Saturday.
The Senate bill deserves to be heard. We long have argued that open primaries are a way to increase voter participation and reduce extremism in both politics and governance. Today, nearly a quarter of New Mexico voters are declining to declare a political party. That’s more than 325,000 New Mexicans who cannot participate in primary elections unless they join a political party. These primaries, by the way, while restricted to party members, are paid for by all taxpayers. That hardly seems fair.
Yes, New Mexico voters now have the option of declaring a party preference when they go to vote and then reverting to an unaffiliated status after. But in a state dedicated to making it easier for all voters to participate, forcing unaffiliated citizens to jump through hoops is wrong.
Increasing participation in voting will only strengthen our electoral system, restoring trust in the political process and ensuring that the men and women who win office have the backing of a majority of citizens, not just primary voters. Open primaries will force politicians to stop pandering to extremes. Get this historic legislation passed and signed into law.