Posted by Jesse Shayne on February 07, 2017 at 11:13 AM
State Supreme Court upholds closed primaries
The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday upheld the state’s system of closed primary elections, ruling the practice is constitutional and not overly burdensome.
The decision means primary elections can continue to be closed to voters who aren’t registered as members of the political parties with candidates on the ballot. That means other voters, including those who decline to state a party affiliation, can vote in only general elections.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, however, may not be the last word on the issue. The state Legislature is considering legislation to open primary elections to all voters.
Albuquerque lawyer David Crum, who brought the case before the Supreme Court, had argued closed primaries violate the state constitution’s guarantee of free and open elections.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Edward Chávez said requiring voters to register with a political party in order to vote in primary elections was not overly taxing and instead helped to preserve the “purity” of the election process and protect against abuses to the system.
The court said the system also does not limit any particular class of residents from voting.
Citing a case from the Missouri Supreme Court, Chávez wrote that requiring elections to be free and open “does not mean that there cannot be reasonable regulations of elections in the interest of good citizenship and honest government.”
The court said Crum and other independent voters can choose to register with the party closest to their policy interests solely for a primary election. State law does not limit an individual’s ability to shift party registration after a primary election.
The justices left open the door for legislative changes to the closed primary system, saying the ruling did not deem an open primary election unconstitutional.
Crum sued the secretary of state and the Bernalillo County clerk in an attempt to open primary elections to all voters.
He said the Supreme Court is out of step with the general populace, who in increasing numbers are registering as independents or as voters who decline to state a party affiliation.
A 2014 Gallup poll of 18,000 people nationally found 42 percent of voters registered as independents, the largest percentage in years and outweighing registered Democrats or Republicans.
“As a whole I think the county is moving toward that [independent voting system] and wants it, even if the parties themselves don’t,” Crum said. “It is just another example of these two parties failing in what the overall electorate of the country wants.”
Bob Perls, founder of New Mexico Open Primaries, said the Supreme Court failed to show how an open system would pose real danger to the election process.
“Interestingly,” he wrote in an email, “the Court adopted one of our primary arguments that the act of voting in a primary is an act of affiliation with a party.”
He said “one small ray of hope in this decision” is that the court did not say open primaries would be unconstitutional.
Two measures are pending in the Legislature to allow unaffiliated voters to submit ballots during primary elections and to make it easier for independent candidates to get on the ballot.
Perls said he believes the legislation will be successful, but if it is not, New Mexico Open Primaries will file a lawsuit on the basis that a closed system funded by taxpayer dollars violates a state constitutional provision that generally prohibits the giveaway of government assets.
Crum said he was not yet sure what further legal steps he might take but added, “We are going to get there one way or another, sooner or later.”