Is New Mexico Ready to End Closed Primaries?
New Mexico elections have long been plagued by a lack of competition and unequal treatment of voters who choose not to affiliate with a political party. Yet, according to New Mexico Open Elections, the political landscape is shifting in the favor of nonpartisan reform.
Independent voters are not allowed to participate in taxpayer-funded primary elections, despite the fact that these elections are almost always the most critical stage of the electoral process. Legislative districts are so safe for one party or the other that half the seats go uncontested.
This means the winner is picked in the primaries.
New Mexico Open Elections has worked since 2015 to get primary reform passed in the state legislature, and for the first time a bill (Senate Bill 73) that would allow independent voters to pick a major party ballot in a semi-open primary was approved by the State Senate in a bipartisan 27-10 vote.
“The fact that it passed easily in the Senate is landmark,” said Bob Perls, Founder and Board President of New Mexico Open Elections. “Sentiments are changing”
Up until the 2023 session, Perls' group was never able to get a primary reform bill to the floor of either legislative chamber, but he believes that the past two presidential election cycles have been a wakeup call for many on the need for electoral change.
“In 2020, it reinforced that even though most people can’t fully articulate what kind of change they want, more and more Americans and New Mexicans are realizing that the gridlock in Santa Fe and Washington must be solved and can potentially be solved with the way we elect candidates,” he said.
Senate Bill 73 was sent to the state House in February, but was ultimately stalled in the House Judiciary Committee, and died when the session ended. Yet, there may be enough support to pass a bill like SB 73 in both chambers.
“For the first time ever, much – if not most – of the House leadership supports semi-open primaries,” Perls remarked. “We have a new speaker and he voted for a parallel bill in House Judiciary.”
The House version of semi-open primaries also got support from the House majority whip and the majority leader. However, like SB 73, the bill died in the House Judiciary Committee.
Overcoming Legislative Hurdles
New Mexico is one of 24 states that does not have a citizen ballot initiative process, which means electoral reform of any kind must be introduced and adopted in the legislature. And, the legislative window each session is small.
“New Mexico is the only remaining state where the legislature is part time volunteer,” Perls explained.
“Legislators don’t get paid. They don’t have a staff. I’m a former state representative. I have experienced it. It is frustrating and many of us are trying to change it.”
A long session for the New Mexico State Legislature is only 60 days long, and that happens on odd numbered years. Sessions on even numbered years run for 30 days, which is not a lot of time to get anything through two legislative chambers.
“There are limitations on what bills can be introduced on even-numbered years,” Perls added.
It is not certain if primary reform advocates can re-introduce a bill like SB 73 in 2024 if it isn’t considered germane, but there are potential avenues New Mexico Open Elections can take if it isn’t germane.
Open primaries can be introduced as a constitutional amendment, because amendments are always considered germane in a short session. Perls said his group is also trying to get the issue on what is known as the governor’s call.
“If the governor wants to, the governor can introduce any bill that he or she cares to,” he said.
There is no indication at the moment whether or not this will happen.
The Growing Importance of the Independent Vote
Perls and New Mexico Open Elections have made substantial inroads with state lawmakers, and when asked how his message to legislators has evolved over the years, Perls says he focuses less on dysfunction and more on segments of the voting population that are important to elected officials.
“What seems to have been more effective in the last year or two is talking about engaging youth, who are registered 50, 60% as independents nationally, engaging veterans, who are registered 50% as independents nationally, and better representing communities of color,” he explained.
These are voters who are “disproportionately disenfranchised by being prohibited to vote in the most meaningful election – the primary,” and New Mexico Open Elections stresses how deeply important enfranchising these voters is to the democratic process.
In April, Gallup reported that half the country now self-identifies as independent. It is a record-setting number as the voters who choose to identify with a party make up smaller and smaller percentages of the electorate.
A key takeaway from Gallup’s findings is that Gen X and Millennial voters are bucking historical trends. In the past, it was not uncommon for young voters to declare themselves independent and then pick a party as they aged. But these voters are staying independent.
One Gallup analyst observed that – just as Perls noted – voter sentiment can be attributed to “the disillusionment with the political system, U.S. institutions and the two parties, which are seen as ineffectual, too political and too extreme."
For decades, many partisans have tried to ignore independent voters. Pundits regularly touted the myth of independent voters – that most voters who say they are independent are really closet partisans.
But, it is getting harder to justify this argument, and it is getting harder for lawmakers to ignore independent voters because the voters they want support from are increasingly identifying as independent.
Building Up Local Reform Efforts
Perls believes the last few election cycles have spurred an urgency among many New Mexico citizens for electoral change – and the evidence is how his organization has grown over the last 7 years.
“Our donations have increased exponentially over the last several years, volunteer engagement has increased exponentially, and because of increased local donations, New Mexico Open Elections has gotten to a point where we’ve hired our first paid executive director,” he explained.
Sila Avcil, the executive director of New Mexico Open Elections, has been on board since August 2022. Perls says people should not underestimate how important being able to hire a full-time staff of any capacity is to the success of local and statewide election reform efforts.
“For 7 years we struggled with a volunteer board,” Perls remarked. “I, personally, spent 10 to 20 hours a week on this – sometimes 30 hours a week on a volunteer basis. It is transformational to have paid staff.”
New Mexico Open Elections is also looking for the first time to hire a lobbyist for year-around consultation.
Perls believes that on a national scale it is important for citizens and reform advocates to do what they can to fund local chapters of reform groups, because the ability for these groups to operate with a paid staff can mean the difference between barely getting a bill through a single legislative committee to getting reform past the goal line.
“We hope in 2024 that is exactly what we’ll do,” Perls said.
New Mexico Open Elections is not only working on primary reform, but also supports ranked choice voting. Perls says the group's strategy is to focus on open primaries at the state level and build up support for ranked choice voting in local municipalities.
Ranked choice voting is already used in the state’s capital, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces.