Necessary reform to operate the general election safely during the COVID-19 pandemic nearly went off the tracks during the recent special session of the state Legislature.
While initial election reform changes were being considered in the Senate, Democratic Sen. John Sapien added an amendment — an unnecessary one given the emergency measure under consideration — that would “open” New Mexico’s primary elections to voters who decline to affiliate with a political party. Saddling essential legislation with a controversy is hardly the best way forward.
The regular legislative session in January 2021 would have been the time to consider changes to primary voting, not a special session where improvements to how citizens vote had to happen so the general election in November can function smoothly.
So contentious was the change in primary voting that Democratic House members initially killed the entire bill. Only after much haggling did enough representatives pass the necessary reforms. They will make it easier to vote absentee by mail, avoiding polling places and the risk of infection. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until July 12 to sign or veto the legislation.
Don’t get us wrong. With the increase in people who decline to state their party preference, preferring to function as independent voters, primary voting rules must change. Some 22 percent of voters no longer select a political party, meaning they have no say in primaries. That percentage keeps increasing, an indication that regular folks are tired of partisan politics. Sapien, who is not running for reelection, has long supported an open primary; he figured this hybrid method was as close as he could get.
Supporters of the current system point out that all these individuals have to do is choose a party. If they don’t, the thinking goes, that’s their choice. Trouble is, primaries are no longer — if they ever were — the place where nominees are chosen to run in the general election by major-party voters. In most GOP-dominated areas, the winner of the Republican Party primary won’t have an opponent in November. In most Democratic areas, the primary “nominee” is the anointed winner.
Not being able to vote in the primary means a significant slice of the electorate has no say in choosing a county commissioner, sheriff, treasurer or legislator. That’s bad for governance.
We have supported reforms to create a true open primary. Voters show up on Election Day and tell the election worker which party’s ballot they want. That’s open. The amendment — which House Speaker Brian Egolf thinks may be removed in the 2021 legislative session even if the governor signs it — requires the voter to register with a party to participate, even on Election Day. That party registration will follow them unless they reregister as “decline to state.”
This is not an open primary. It’s a way to corral independents into a political party, with the not-so-secret intention of keeping them there.
Otherwise, New Mexico needs to open up primary voting. Pass actual reform, in other words, with the intention of making voting accessible to all.