Posted by Caitlin Kelly on June 26, 2015 at 11:12 AM
Corrales-Based Campaign May Bring Open Primaries to New Mexico
A statewide campaign to open up primary elections to all registered voters has been launched in Corrales.
The aim is to restore the democratic process in New Mexico and throughout the United States, according to Corrales’ former State Representative Bob Perls, who heads the new non-profit New Mexican Open Primaries.
After incorporating the group this spring and recruiting a board of directors from supporters among Republicans, Democrats and independents, Perls hopes to gain sufficient support to convince the N.M. Legislature to allow New Mexicans to vote on a constitutional amendment establishing non-partisan primary elections.
Earlier this month, Perls resigned from the U.S. Foreign Service after having returned to Corrales with his family. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXIV, No.6, May 9, 2015 “Perls Back in Corrales After U.S. Foreign Service Stint.”)
He is now serving as the non-profit’s executive director. Other board members are Sarah Cobb, former local representative for U.S. Senator Tom Udall; attorney Ed Hollington; and physician Bill Adriano.
Four states have already switched to open primaries: Nebraska, Louisiana, California and Washington State. Perls said changes there have delivered more voter participation, less divisive government, reductions in the influence of big money in politics and restoration of citizens’ faith in democracy.
“The fundamental belief is that you shouldn’t have to join a political party to vote. In New Mexico, we have a closed primary system; that means you have to register Democrat or register Republican to vote in a primary,” Perls explained.
“New Mexico has been a heavily Democratic state, and therefore probably 90 percent of the important decisions are made in the Democratic primary. Most elections are decided in the Democratic Party primary. That’s because there’s either no competition from the other party in the general election or there’s token competition in the general election. Ninety percent of the time, the candidate who comes out the winner in the Democratic party gets elected.
“Here is why it’s important for a primary to be open. These ‘electoral process issues’ are complex, not very sexy and yet are the root-cause of the political dysfunction we see in America and in New Mexico.
“The idea of New Mexico Open Primaries is to open up the primaries so that independents can vote and so that people don’t have to register as a Democrat or Republican to vote in the first-round election.
“Most people think of the party primary as a first-round election; what our organization wants to do is educate people about the fact that elections are a fundamental responsibility of state government, and that it is going about it backward to have a private club, or private association [parties], running our elections.
“I believe strongly that parties serve a function, and I believe strongly that this movement is not anti-party,” Perls insisted. “But we need to look at why we have the gridlock and hyper-partisanship and dysfunction that we have in this country. The root cause of that is, in fact, partisanship.”
He thinks it’s wrong —even illegal— to allow private organizations, such as parties, to decide who they will allow to vote for to hold a public office. “Our tax dollars pay for primary elections, and it is illegal (or should be, once the courts catch up based on the N.M. anti-donation clause) for public dollars to go to private associations. We don’t tolerate it in any situation except the most important activity we do in our country —when we vote.”
As a Democrat, Perls won election to the N.M. House of Representatives in 1992 and was re-elected in 1994 before running unsuccessfully for Congress and then for a seat on the N.M. Public Regulations Commission. He applied for admission to the Foreign Service Corps after selling his medical equipment sales business, Monitech, in 2008. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in January 2010.
During his four years in the N.M. House, he was regarded as something of a maverick for not strictly toeing the Democratic party line. That independent thinking cost him support from party leaders.
The movement toward open primaries in state level elections began in the 1990s. Although the four states that have made the switch chose somewhat different approaches, the main result has been to allow the top two vote-getters in first-round elections to face each other in the general election.
“There’s a continuum of what changing a closed primary looks like. About half the states in the nation have closed primaries; about half the states have some shape of open primaries. What I’d like to see, at least, is that those voters who ‘decline to state’ a party affiliation can still vote in the primary.
“The second step in this continuum, which is what most of the states have which are considered to have open primaries is this. It is still called a Democratic primary and a Republican primary, but anybody can vote in any of the primaries.
“That’s a reasonable next step,” he conceded, “but I think in this day and age when it’s pretty easy to find out what candidates believe, it is pretty reasonable to take a no-labels approach to a primary election.
“And instead of calling it a ‘primary election,’ just call it a ‘first-round election.’ This is the final step in the continuum. It’s non-partisan.”
Perls pointed out that municipal elections, like those in Corrales, are non-partisan, as is choosing who to fill certain judicial positions.
“Why is a state election or a county election partisan and a city election non-partisan? Let’s take the logical step and say, ‘Okay, it makes sense for municipal elections to be non-partisan.’ Let’s say a community has a problem with skunks skunking our dogs. A block gets together to figure out how we solve this skunk problem. We don’t say, ‘Let’s divide this street up into Republicans and Democrats and have these two warring factions solve the skunk problem.’
“Yet that’s what we do at the county level, the state level and the federal level. The approach we take now, which is deeply dysfunctional, is to have candidates beat each other up trying to raise money, but now after the election we expect you to bury the hatchet and govern to solve problems.
“Everybody can see that’s not happening. And people are beginning to realize, especially with the 2016 election cycle coming up, that it doesn’t matter what new person you put in play —whether that person is president or governor of state senator or U.S. senator— that the system itself is broken. We need to get at the root-cause of the dysfunction.
“Yes, money is a big piece of it, but there’s legitimate research that shows it’s not the most important piece. It’s the hyper-partisanship.”
Increasingly, the U.S. electorate is disillusioned with existing political parties. Nationwide, 42 percent of all voters identify themselves as “independent,” or “decline to state” party affiliation. In New Mexico, that non-partisan participation stands at around 22 percent.
Perls thinks future research will show that “somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of all Democrats are only registered that way because they want to vote in the Democratic primary.”
“The open primaries movement says, ‘Let’s have a system that benefits the voters and puts the voters first, not the parties first.’
He explained why politics is becoming more and more dominated by candidates holding extreme positions. The voter districting process is set up to protect incumbents’ seats. “If you have very safe Republican seats and very safe Democratic seats, the only time that the elected official is concerned about losing a re-election race is in the primary.
“We have seen that unfold in New Mexico and nationally in the last 20 years. Democrats are tracking further and further to the left because their only concern as incumbents is getting ‘primaried.’ I actually experienced that as a State Rep. I always had primary competition, and they always ran to the left of me. Republicans are experiencing that in the same way. You can have a very conservative Republican, like Orin Hatch, and he still was hit by an even more conservative Republican in the primary and was really worried about losing.
“What happens is you end up with elected officials in Congress and in the State legislature who track further and further to the extremes. In fact, America is a pretty centrist country. If you put most people in a room, they would probably agree on 80 percent of policy issues in America. But if you put the average legislators in a room, they would not agree about much of anything.
“That’s because, to get elected, they have to track to extremes because they have to appeal to primary voters who are typically at the extreme and they have to appeal to the interest groups to fund their campaign who want rigorous adherence to their doctrine. None of that contributes to anybody’s ability to build coalitions and find consensus to solve real-world problems. That’s the root of the American political problems we have right now.”
The Democrat, who has said privately he intends to change his political affiliation to independent in coming weeks, said that such dysfunction was overcome in Nebraska after it adopted open primaries.
“Even though 70 percent of the Nebraska legislature is Republican, they recently voted to repeal the death penalty, which you would not expect to come out of a Republican-dominated legislature. The same with welfare reform and education. That’s all happened in Nebraska; why? Because to get elected, they have to appeal to Democrats, independents and Republicans in their very first election —the election we call a primary.
“In the very first legislature under the new system in Nebraska, legislators are building coalitions, talking to each other and talking to all voters, because they need all voters in order to move through the first-round primary, whereas under a closed primary system, all the Democrat has to do is appeal to the far left and all the Republican has to do typically is appeal to the far right.”
In March, while Perls was on leave from his last diplomatic post, he attended a national meeting of Independent Voting.org in California. “That’s what got me focused. I came back and resigned from the Foreign Service and I’m back in Corrales full-time. I realized that even though America is the greatest country in the world, our democracy is breaking down.”
Returning from the conference, Perls discovered little movement on those issues in this state. But he found like-minded citizens such as attorney Ed Hollington who is challenging New Mexico’s closed primary system.
About two months ago, Perls began inviting politically active citizens of all stripes to his home for discussions about initiating open primaries in New Mexico. At one of the first living room discussions, participants included former Albuquerque City Councillor Allan Reed, former N.M. gubernatorial candidate Gary King and his wife, Sarah and Nate Cobb and Paul and Laura Stokes, as well as Hollington who offered an update on his lawsuit against closed primaries.
Perls has lined up a series of presentations on his proposal. On June 29, he will speak at the Tanoan Country Club.
The group will meet in a North Valley home Sunday, June 21, at 3 p.m. to hear by Skype from guest speaker Jason Olson, director of Independent Voice, who played a central role in California’s shift to open primaries. To learn the location, visit the website www.nmopenprimaries.org.
Perls plans to build statewide support using a grant he seeks from a Santa Fe-based foundation. He thinks it’s possible to persuade the N.M. Legislature to call for a statewide electorate vote on a constitutional amendment within six years.
He pointed out that it took six years of organizing for California to achieve its open primary system.
To participate in his weekly meetings, he invites citizens to get involved through the website or Facebook.