Open N.M. primaries to get better government

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By Sherry Robinson

In a primary election in the not-too-distant future, a handful of voters will come tottering into the polls on walkers and canes and decide which candidates everyone will vote on in the general election.
OK, I’m exaggerating a little.
Only one in five voters — those declaring themselves either a Democrat or Republican — marked a ballot in the June primary, and yet more New Mexicans consider themselves independents. “Declined to state,” or DTS, in bureaucratese. Nationally, independents now make up 45 percent of the electorate.
Studies show that young Americans increasingly describe themselves as political independents, and recently an Albuquerque Journal poll showed the same trends in New Mexico. For 18 to 24-year-olds, 38 percent are independents, compared with 36 percent Democrats and 25 percent Republicans. The older the voter, the more likely they are to occupy a party camp.
Our younger generation is disgusted by the deadlocks in Congress (aren’t we all) and they don’t want to be hemmed in by the narrow ideologies of either major party.
Who can blame them?
We’ve heard a robust debate lately on the state’s primary election. The two major parties argue that primaries are the process for their members to choose candidates. Yes, but why should taxpayers pick up the check for their private shindig? (The cost for the last primary was $3 million to the Secretary of State, and that doesn’t count costs to counties.)
Others argue correctly that we have created the monster. The standoffs we see in Congress and increasingly in the Legislature are the product of closed primaries and partisan redistricting. They combine to produce candidates holding views that resonate with the party’s base, but not the rest of the population, which is scattered along a continuum of views.
How many times have you said or heard someone say, “Well, I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” I hear that a lot. Which party matches that statement? Neither.
In the last primary New Mexico barred 22 percent of voters, nearly 241,000 people, from participating because they were independents or members of minority parties.
We’re among the last 11 states with a closed primary. Other states have gone to a system of one ballot for everybody, and the top two vote getters appear on general election ballots.
In one magic stroke, we would get candidates who speak to everybody and not just the party base and who are more likely to compromise and get some work done. You know, moderates. They’ve become as rare as silver dollars.
It probably won’t fly in the Legislature. It’s probably not realistic to expect people who are products of the existing system, who are successful in the existing system, to dismantle that system.
Maybe we have a better chance in the courts.
A lawsuit filed last month challenges the closed primary as unconstitutional. “The basic right to vote, one of the most important rights we have in a democracy, is unconstitutionally denied to a large number of voters in the state,” said J. Edward Hollington, the lawyer who filed the suit.
State Public Education Commissioner Tyson Parker is also suing. Under state law, as an independent, he has to gather more than three times the petition signatures as a minority party candidate and more than six times that of a Democrat or Republican. It’s not fair, he says, and it’s unconstitutional.
(At times in the past, some districts have had no education commissioners because nobody ran. As a matter of common sense, I don’t understand why we would make this so difficult.)
It’s possible that the party hardliners will die off and sheer demographics will mandate a change. We can only hope it comes sooner.