Inside the Capitol

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Should NM have open primaries?

52213 open primaries

SANTA FE – Should all voters get to participate in selecting general election candidates? The answer has long been no. Everyone has an opportunity to join a political party that most suits their beliefs and participate in that party's primary election.
But with political parties falling in such disfavor with voters, most states have now gone to a system that allows independents to vote in primary elections.
New Mexico is not at that point yet but Think New Mexico is now pushing it. This isn't your garden variety think tank that decides what people should be thinking and then hopes the general public will agree. Think New Mexico decides on a cause and then sets out to make it happen.
The group has been highly successful. Last year, it set out to reform the state Public Regulation Commission by way of three constitutional amendments. It had to get those amendments through the Legislature by super-majorities and then convince voters to approve them.
The success rate was 100 percent. I could go through the years of other successes but that is old news. We are here to talk about what's happening next.
Some 33 states now have a type of open primary system. Think New Mexico believes we should join them. New Mexico's election statutes currently bar independents from voting in primaries. But the U.S Supreme Court case has held in a Connecticut case that it is unconstitutional for a state to mandate closed primaries.
The court said, in essence, that a state cannot stop a party from opening its primary to unaffiliated or independent voters. You can tell from that wording that it can be up to a state political party whether to allow independents to vote. In New Mexico, we call independents "decline to state." That keeps them from being confused with minor political parties that contain the word "independent" in their name.
All this means that instead of getting a legislative or constitutional solution to primary election participation, the Republican and Democratic parties are free to choose who to invite to vote in their primary.
In other words, a political party can invite not just independents but also members of all other political parties to vote in their primary. That is what most states do. If only independents are invited and not members of other parties, that is called a semi-open primary.
Fred Nathan, head of Think New Mexico, has written to both parties asking them to consider his proposal. John Billingsly, head of the state GOP, isn't especially impressed with the idea, according to Steve Terrell of the Santa Fe New Mexican. He says it would allow too much mischief.
Indeed, that is exactly what radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh tried back in 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the leading candidates for president on the Democratic side.
Limbaugh urged Republican voters in states allowing party members to cross over and vote in the other's primary election. Limbaugh suggested Hillary Clinton would be easier to beat in the general election so Republicans should vote for her in the primary. He called it "Operation Chaos." It didn't work.
Before he left office, state Democratic Party Chairman Javier Gonzales told Terrell he liked the idea of open primaries because they strengthened democracy by letting more people vote. But his term is up and Sam Bregman has been elected the party's new chairman. None of us have heard from Bregman yet.
What would happen if Democrats opened their primary and Republicans didn't? Four states have that situation. It just means that independents have to vote in the Democratic primary or not at all.
My guess would be that those independents might be more willing to vote Democratic in the general election or at least for those Democrats they supported in the primary election.
The matter could be taken to the Legislature but if neither party wants it, why bother?


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