Open Primary Reform Breaks Through in New Mexico Legislature
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Fulcrum and has been republished on IVN with permission from the publisher. This piece was written by Bob Perls and Sila Avcil. Perls, a former NM State Representative, is the Founder/President of NMOE, and Avcil is the organization’s Executive Director.
In a historic move, the New Mexico Senate has just passed a semi-open primary elections bill, which allows registered independents and minor party affiliates to participate in primary elections without having to change their voter registration. The legislation passed with a vote of 27-10, with support from both Democrats and Republicans, and is seen as a significant step towards increasing voter participation in primary elections. Though 41 states have some form of open primaries, nearly all have a legislative bypass through the ability of citizens to change laws through ballot initiative. New Mexico does not allow citizen referenda and getting any legislature in the U.S. to open up primaries has been next to impossible.
New Mexico Open Elections (formerly NM Open Primaries) led the effort to pass this bill through the New Mexico Senate. We have been working tirelessly on a semi-open primaries bill, as well as other voter rights efforts since 2015. That effort has required significant foundation building over years, including organizing a coalition in support, clearing legal objections, educating lawmakers, thought leaders and the public, and raising awareness in the media.
A big shout-out to Jeremy Gruber with Open Primaries. He told us late last year that we must pass a semi-open primaries bill in New Mexico before we could even think of passing non-partisan primaries and/or ranked choice voting. If not for Jeremy, we might have skipped this step after seven years of frustration only to have missed a window of opportunity to take a small but important step for election reform that will open the door for more reforms to follow.
Under the current closed primary system in New Mexico, only registered party members are allowed to vote in primary elections, which we have criticized for disenfranchising a large portion of the electorate and causing issues for county clerks. Since 41 states have some level of open primaries and with the mobility of voters in America, most newcomers to this sunbelt state assume they can vote in all elections. They show up on primary election day and get angry at the election officials, like the county clerk. Then, they leave and don’t vote. With the passage of this bill, registered independents and minor party affiliates will be able to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary elections.
The semi-open primary elections bill now heads to the House of Representatives. With the Senate vote signaling strong bipartisan support, we remain optimistic that it will ultimately be signed into law. The Secretary of State of New Mexico and many county clerks have expressed full support of this bill and many locals are showing up for public testimonies. The Governor, Michelle Lujan-Grisham, is on record during her last re-election campaign supporting a bill that allows independents to vote in primary elections.
The passage of the semi-open primary elections bill is a significant development for New Mexico, which has struggled with low voter turnout in recent years. By giving more voters a voice in the primary elections, the state is taking an important step towards increasing participation and ensuring that its elections are more democratic and representative of the people.
Just this year, NMOE gathered donations to reach and mobilize the 7,000 voters who changed their registration on primary election day to vote in the 2022 June primary election. We onboarded a Volunteer Coordinator and hired a lobbyist, previous State Representative Kelly Fajardo. With all boots on the ground, we have been able to manage the success of this bill as it made it through the Senate. With more organization and funding, we could help the state of New Mexico make history.
Efforts will continue as the bill moves through the House and NMOE will continue to need all the support we can get. Please visit our website to learn more and get involved.
About the Author
Bob is a former New Mexico State Representative and former U.S. Diplomat with the Department of State. Bob founded both a c3 and a c4 focused on election reform in New Mexico and currently volunteers extensively for both.