Posted by Russell Daniels on February 03, 2021 at 11:03 PM
Let Independents vote in primaries
If you look out at the political landscape and see mostly the wacky right and the wacky left and not much in between, you should get behind House Bill 79.
The bipartisan measure would open primary elections to all registered voters and not just those affiliated with the major political parties. Independents and members of minority parties could ask the Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian parties for a ballot without having to change their registrations. Democrats couldn’t vote in the Republican primary and vice versa.
This could expand New Mexico’s primary participation substantially. Independents number 299,000, or 23.4% of registered voters. This up from 7% in 1982. Only 9 states don’t have open primaries.
Last week the bill, which has been through the legislative hammermill before, came up in the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. Listening to the debate, I could hear a lot of reasons for opening the process and no substantive reasons not to.
“This is all about democracy,” said Bob Perls, founder of New Mexico Open Elections. “Political parties aren’t mentioned in the New Mexico or the U. S. constitutions. We shouldn’t have a system requiring somebody to join a party to vote in the primary. It allows political parties to control who can vote. They shouldn’t be setting the rules. It excludes 60% of millennials who don’t declare a party.”
John House, president of the nonprofit Represent Us New Mexico, said that many registered voters identify as independents. The outcome of the general election is decided by the results of the primary, and yet a large number of registered voters are unable to vote. “It’s dominated by voters on the political extremes and contributes directly to division.”
Albuquerque attorney Jay Edward Hollington, who filed the lawsuit in 2014 to allow independents to vote in primaries, said, “This is an opportunity for the Legislature to defer to the right to vote,” he said.
Committee Republicans Greg Nibert of Alamogordo and Bill Rehm of Albuquerque argued that independents have the option of changing their party registration before the primary and then changing it back again.
“Should we be forcing people to do that?” asked Perls, who is a former legislator.
Rehm also said opening the process would increase a candidate’s cost of campaigning.
HB 79 passed 6 to 3, with same Republicans as last year in opposition. It’s headed to the House Judiciary Committee, where last year’s bill died.
This isn’t necessarily a partisan issue. There are Democrats who don’t like the idea either. Party diehards tend to see the primaries as their turf. If you want to play, you have to join the club.
Maybe the discomfort stems from the increasing numbers of independents and their potential influence in choosing centrist candidates.
We talk a lot about involving young people in the political process, but they aren’t enamored of either major party. Liam Paul, of the UNM College Democrats, said he does voter registration work, and most young people are independents. He testified that the bill would increase participation among younger people.
Another trend is defecting Republicans. Recently The Hill, an online news site, reported that more than 30,000 registered Republicans changed their voter registration in the weeks after a mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol. And those numbers come only from the few states that report voter registrations weekly. The Hill thought those numbers were the tip of the iceberg. About a third register as Democrats, but most become independents. Democrats have also lost members but in smaller numbers.
On the national news, I heard one lawmaker describe himself as “happily tribeless.”
About a quarter of registered voters in New Mexico are also happily tribeless, and they have no say in their representation under current laws.