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.

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(5) comments

Craig O'Hare

There are two things fundamentally flawed with this opinion opposing open primaries: 1) Taxpayers pay County Clerks and the SOS to run primary elections. So Independents are paying taxes for a government function they're' excluded from. Totally unfair. 2) The opinion admits that its approach is "... a way to corral independents into a political party, with the not-so-secret intention of keeping them there." Um.... independent voters do NOT want to be corralled into one of the major parties. That's their whole point in being independent. Hard to believe that the New Mex doesn't understand that.

Jess Cullinan

Agreed that the timing of this amendment is asinine (and won't have any effect on anything until 2022), but your analysis of what it does is missing some very basic elements.

Any registered voter can change their party any time they want, except during the 28-day period before the election. With the 2018 changes to the election code now allowing for same-day voter registration during this arbitrary 28-day period (with increased ID requirements), legislators included a provision that currently-registered voters could not change their party. All the special-session amendment does is remove that arbitrary 28-day "freeze" before the election.

In 2016 and 2018 there were record numbers of people in NM changing their party affiliation before the Primary and then changing it right back - not just from D to R or reverse, but from DTS (decline to state) or Green or what have you to one of the two major parties and then back again. Often they would fill out a new registration form right in the polling place after voting. There are no requirements for party "membership" or involvement - the voter just ticks the desired box on the registration form and that's the ballot they'll get on Primary Election Day.

This is functionally an open primary already. To remove this purely administrative process might save our Clerks and their staff some work in record-keeping, but no voter is truly "disenfranchised" in our existing Primary system if they're paying attention. It's high time to stop implying they are.

Stefanie Beninato

I believe in the CA primaries, everyone is voted on by everyone. The two top contenders then run against each other. Yes, you can have two people from the same party competing for a post but it definitely levels the playing field so all primary candidates get ranked by all voters.

Khal Spencer

So roughly a quarter of registered voters, who are sick and tired of the partisan warfare, are iced out of any decision making that leads to who will be running in November. They get stuck with rotten chicken or smelly fish. Its made even worse by the fact that typically, a small fraction of registered Ds and Rs vote in the primaries. Often the most ideologically motivated show up and we saw that this year in the Dem party. So cynicism should be the rule, not the exception.

We need to go further than opening the primaries. We need to wrench the controls of government away from the current two party, mouth breathers take all, system.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Whatca afraid of esteemed editorial board??? Maybe that more moderate/conservative votes will derail and scuttle the Santa Fe Ring's well funded and elaborate plan to purge our Democratic party of any moderate/conservative voices in our primary? Right.

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