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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lawmakers seek independent input in primary elections

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By J.R. Oppenheim / New Mexico Daily Lobo

During a Thursday press conference at UNM, state Sen. Bill O’Neill announces his intention to sponsor legislation allowing New Mexico’s independent voters to participate in primary elections.

Three Albuquerque lawmakers came forward Thursday to pitch potential legislation to allow independent voters to participate in the New Mexico primary election process.

During a press conference held at UNM, state Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, said he intends to sponsor a bill that will grant voters who decline to state a party affiliation access to the primary election ballot box.

O’Neill said he will work with his House of Representatives colleague Rep. Emily Kane, D-Albuquerque, on the bill, and Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said he supports such legislation as well.

New Mexico currently holds closed primaries, meaning only those who declare party affiliation may vote in their respective party primaries: Democrats can only vote in Democratic primaries and Republicans in Republican primaries.

“As a partisan, as a Democrat, we need to respect a person’s choice not to declare a partisan affiliation,” O’Neill said. “That doesn’t mean they don’t care about politics; that doesn’t mean they’re not reading a paper every day, but as Democrats we need to invite them into our party process, into the party.”

Only 20.26 percent of registered New Mexico voters cast ballots in this year’s primary election, according to secretary of state’s office.

Yet younger voters are increasingly declining to state a party affiliation or are backing third parties. According to data from Research & Polling Inc. published in the Albuquerque Journal in July, 38 percent of voters ages 18-24 fall into the declined-to-state/other party category. The number of declined-to-state/other party voters increases as the age groups get younger, according to the data.

Kane said she comes across several declined-to-state voters out on the campaign trail. In other words, she said, those voters do not feel strongly partisan. The polarization in Washington, she said, has caused many voters to become hesitant to affiliate with a party.

O’Neill said he does not want a so-called “jungle primary” in which members of the opposition vote in a party’s primary. That reportedly occurred in Mississippi, where Republican incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran won the runoff despite Tea Party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel winning more votes in the initial primary. Democrats who did not vote in their own primary reportedly came out to vote for Cochran in that runoff.

“We’re not talking about that. We’re not talking about independents coming into the Democratic Party and running as Democrats.” O’Neill said. “No. We’re inviting unaffiliated voters to get involved with us, so I personally do not see the downside here.”

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, supports participation of independent voters in the primary process, press secretary Mike Lonergan said.

“Governor Martinez believes every American should be allowed to vote and, thus, feels that independents should be able to vote in primaries,” Lonergan wrote in an email to the Daily Lobo.

Attending the Thursday news conference, Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she backs such legislation. During every primary election since she became county clerk, Toulouse Oliver said, she receives phone calls, emails and questions regarding why independent voters cannot vote in the primary elections. Those questions have not necessarily increased, she said, but they have come rather consistently.

Toulouse Oliver, herself a candidate for Secretary of State, said she hates to have to turn anybody from the polls, especially if they are registered.

“The purpose for keeping elections closed in the past doesn’t really serve our society today, our democracy today,” she said.

Former Republican state Sen. Mark Boitano, joining a July panel discussion on KNME’s “New Mexico In Focus,” said changes should be made to the party system to allow more flexibility. He favors getting more candidates in the general election while the party primary system remains.

The issue with open primaries, Boitano said, is that parties are their own organizations. It does not make sense, he said, to grant individuals who have no interest in one party the ability to vote within that party.

“If we amend our 350-page election law — you see the party’s fingerprints all over that — make it easier for minor parties to have influence, make it easier for smaller parties to become major parties, give declined-to-states and independents more influence within the party system, then you have more choice in the general election,” he said on the show.

Boitano noted that to be a major party in New Mexico every county must have a party county chairman. It should be easier to become a major party in the state, he said, and to give voice to independent voters.

Julia Hellwege, a political science Ph.D. candidate and an independent voter, sees both sides of the issue. On the one hand primaries decide a party’s nominee, so she said the party should be the one to decide the candidate. However, primary elections are taxpayer-funded, and those taxpayers should be allowed to participate.

Hellwege said she is not bothered that she cannot vote in the primaries, but acknowledges that others are. One option, she said, is to grant same-day voter registration. New Mexico citizens must be registered to vote 28 days before an election in order to vote.

“The only reason you should be frustrated is if you’re only making up your mind in those last 30 days,” she said. “And then, yes, you have reason to be.”

J.R. Oppenheim is the managing editor for the Daily Lobo. He also oversees the newspaper’s social media accounts. Contact him at managingeditor@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @JROppenheim.