Low turnout for independents in New Mexico primaries

·4 min read

Jun. 11—Tuesday's primary election was the first in which New Mexico voters who register with no major party were allowed to participate — as long as they were willing to be a Democrat, Republican or Libertarian for at least a day.

The change, which came under legislation approved during a special session in 2020, applied to about 304,000 independent voters, whose registrations list their party as "declined to state," as well as those who register with minor parties. Independents make up a large share of New Mexico's 1.3 million voters — about 23 percent.

Just a fraction of them took advantage of the new law.

Data from the Secretary of State's Office shows 2,111 primary election voters had switched their party affiliation before casting a ballot, either on election day or at an early voting site. Over half of them, 1,097 voters, participated in the Republican primary, while 949 voted Democratic and 65 switched to Libertarian.

Whether their votes had any effect on state or local races, or whether they will remain with the party they chose, remains unclear.

Bob Perls, founder of the voting-access advocacy group New Mexico Open Primaries, called the new law a "baby step" toward a primary election system in the state in which all registered voters can participate, regardless of party affiliation.

"The fact that 2,000 people jumped through major hoops to vote in the primary says, yes, there is a lot of interest from independents to vote in primaries," Perls said.

On the other hand, 2,000 is "not a lot," he acknowledged.

The new option is a result of Senate Bill 4, which includes a provision allowing independent voters who cast ballots in a primary to switch back to their original status after the election.

Though the state Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill, with just two Republicans in opposition, many Democrats initially joined with Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose it.

At the time, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, argued the bill would force independents to register with a major party to take part in a primary, which is a far cry from an open primary system. Still, the House passed the bill 44-26.

Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, wrote in an email Friday the new same-day registration policy "was a great success and allowed a lot more voters to participate in the primary who might not have otherwise."

He added it "bodes well for future elections. I don't know how much of a role it will play in swaying the outcomes of specific elections in the future, but it's likely that the major parties will need to spend more time trying to woo these voters to their side and, thus, the more voter engagement the better."

Perls said there is evidence to suggest candidates running for office in the top two political parties will soften their rhetoric and policies if they realize they have to appeal to independents, who may be middle-of-the-road voters who find one or both parties too extreme for their tastes.

If independents are allowed to cast ballots in primaries, it "forces all candidates to speak to all people in the first-round election," he said.

Former state Sen. John Sapien of Corrales, a Democrat who introduced the amendment to SB 4 allowing for the new election procedure, said Friday the state has to keep educating voters about the new law.

Those voters could hold enough ballot power to decide who wins the governor's race, he added.

"People of a more moderate mindset are registering as independents," Sapien said. "They don't support the extreme sides of either party. They vote in the middle."

Over time, he said, he would like to see independent voters be allowed to cast ballots without having to switch to a party allegiance.

Political analyst Lonna Atkeson wrote in an email Friday that even if the state does eventually allow all voters to cast ballots in primary elections, "It's likely they'd have little effect on races with lots of voters — statewide contests, some counties' contests ... but it could theoretically make a difference in contests with fewer voters if they were to consistently break for a specific candidate."

She does not see New Mexico's Legislature passing legislation allowing for open primary elections anytime soon.

"The Legislature is more likely going to see how it goes for a few year before they make any additional changes," she wrote.