New Mexico is one of only 10 or so states in the nation with closed primaries. It also has one of the highest ratios of unopposed races in its general elections. That’s not a coincidence — here as almost everywhere, primary elections are the only races that matter.
Our unique two-party democracy needs to be opened up to recapture the vibrancy it had before it devolved into its current dysfunctional, hyperpartisan form. We extol the virtues of competition in many undertakings, but allow our political system to minimize choice. More candidacies would generate more participation, as it does in locales with open primary formats, particularly when those elections are nonpartisan. We need more primary voters almost as much as we need more primary candidates.
Like me, over 300,000 New Mexico voters choose not to affiliate with a major party even though doing so denies us access to the primary ballot. Indeed, we are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, particularly among younger voters. Our taxes pay for these private elections just like those of party members. Most people recognize that this is inherently unfair, and many also realize it is not right to ask us to associate with a major party just to have the right to vote.
Many major party voters may not realize that they, too, would benefit from replacing closed primaries with fully open nonpartisan ones. The polarization of our politics is rooted in the fact both Democrats and Republicans use the same optimized system in which only a small portion of their members can control the outcome of their primaries. The mechanics of their low-turnout setup attracts disproportionately more partisan voters — moderate voices tend not to participate. In congressional elections, the only way to unseat an incumbent is to run to their right or their left. It’s become a verb. Officeholders don’t fear opponents from the other party; they fear being “primaried.”
If more voters could vote for all candidates across all ideologies (and rank their choices if they wanted to), choices would multiply and turnout would increase. Moderate voices would return. Party members would enjoy having more choices from their own party.
This national problem is the root of the systemic failure and devolution of our duopoly. I have been proud to be associated with Unite America, one of our most important democracy reform organizations, almost since its inception.
I urge you to read its new report, “The Primary Problem,” at uniteamerica.org/reports/the-primary-problem#main and/or watch its new video at youtu.be/6W4G82iwwJU. This important document is a comprehensive overview of this topic with impressive documentation.