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The Roundhouse had heartening news Wednesday for a growing number of New Mexico voters who aren’t affiliated with a major political party and would like the state to end a primary election system that excludes them.

Lawmakers on the House of Representatives’ State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted 6-3 to advance a bill that would allow all registered voters to cast ballots in primaries. Under the measure, independent voters and those registered with a minority party could simply request a ballot from one of the major parties, with no requirement to alter the party affiliation on their registration.

It’s not the first time state legislators have considered such a measure. Previous efforts over the last five years have failed to reach the House or Senate floor for a vote, dying early in the committee process.

But advocates are optimistic House Bill 79 could become law this year. They argue the measure would increase voter turnout in both primary and general elections. “In our current closed primary system, a very large number of registered voters are not able to vote, and that constitutes an unacceptable disenfranchisement of these voters,” said John House, president of the nonprofit Represent Us New Mexico, which supports voter reforms. He was one of several people — including New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver — who testified in support of HB 79, which now goes before the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Rep. Daymon Ely, (D-Albuquerque), one of the sponsors of the bipartisan bill, said current state law “disenfranchises almost 300,000 voters. “I want to get people involved in the political process, and what better way to do that than have them take part in the primary [election]?” Ely said.

Under New Mexico’s closed primary system, voters must be registered with one of the three major political parties — Democratic, Republican or Libertarian — to cast a ballot in that party’s primary.

However, a growing share of the state’s voters are registered as independents, have declined to state a party affiliation on their registration forms or state they have no affiliation. Two decades ago, only 10 percent of New Mexico voters were not registered with a major party. As of December 2020, the most recent data available, that had grown to 21.6 percent of voters — or more than 293,000 — according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Democrats, meanwhile, make up 45 percent of the state’s voters, while 31.4 percent are Republicans, just under 1 percent are Libertarians and 1.1 percent are members of smaller parties.

The number of independent voters also is on the rise nationwide — perhaps surpassing the number of people who identify with either of the largest parties. A 2020 Pew Research Center study found 34 percent of voters in the U.S. now identify as independents. In comparison, 33 percent identify as Democrats and 29 percent as Republicans. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, New Mexico is one of just nine states that still have closed primaries. Several Republicans on the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voiced some objections to HB 79, arguing in part it would increase the cost of elections. Candidates in the major political parties would have to invest more money in their campaigns to appeal to a larger pool of primary voters, some critics said.

But support for the measure does not fall along party lines.

Bob Perls of New Mexico Open Elections, which has pushed for the primary overhaul since 2016, said some Democrats support the bill while others do not, and the same goes for Republicans. He noted Sen. Mark Moores, (R-Albuquerque), is one of the sponsors of HB 79.

The divide, he said, is more about long-held beliefs on what a primary election is supposed to be and who should be part of it. “The argument is, ‘It’s a party primary, it belongs to us. It belongs to the party. If you want to join in the primary, then join the party,’ ” he said.

It’s time to address that issue, said Jay E. Hollington, an Albuquerque attorney who questions whether New Mexico’s taxpayer-funded primary elections violate the state constitution. Hollington, who spoke in favor of HB 79 on Wednesday, took that question to the state Supreme Court several years ago. Ultimately, he told the committee, the court kicked the issue back to the Legislature to decide. “Independents have no voice in who their elected representatives are, which is dramatically contrary to the concept of voting for representation,” he said in an interview after the hearing.

One reason for strong opposition to the bill, he said, is because the number of voters switching to independent status continues to rise. “There is a fear that somehow or another this will erode the influence of the two major political parties,” Hollington said. 

It’s unclear where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stands on the legislation. Her spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, said the Governor’s Office had not yet reviewed the bill. Nor is it clear whether the New Mexico Democratic Party will back it. Miranda van Dijk, a spokeswoman for the party, did not respond to a phone call or email requesting comment. 

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce does not support the measure, he wrote in an email. He added that his friends in other states with open or semi-open primaries have told him “many in their states regretted having implemented those laws.”

As of Dec. 31, there were 1.36 million registered voters in New Mexico. Following are number of voters registered to each party:

  • Democrats: 611,746
  • Republicans: 427,339
  • Libertarians: 12,613
  • Independents: 293,151
  • Other parties: 14,627

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