More than a quarter of a million voters cast ballots in the primary last week. The exact number is 262,137, according to the latest tally.
The secretary of state says she's encouraged by the turnout, which sits at a little less than 28 percent of registered Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians, who are a major party by virtue of Gary Johnson's presidential performance here in 2016. That's up from a 20 percent turnout in the last year in which New Mexico voters selected a governor—a substantial jump.
Despite the encouraging increase in turnout, it's still less than the number of voters who went to the trouble of registering, but didn't want to be a member of a political party. New Mexico has traditionally called them voters who "decline to state" their affiliation, as though they're hiding something. The current secretary of state, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, is using "decline to select" as a less pejorative term.
Regardless of what you call them, they number 270,148 voters, and not a single one of them can legally cast a primary ballot.
New Mexico has a closed primary system, in which only registered major party members may vote. The election is paid for by all New Mexicans who pay taxes, regardless of whether they are a Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated or even if they aren't registered to vote.
Despite the improvement in turnout this year, primary elections in non-presidential years are routinely skipped by seven of every 10 voters. In Northern New Mexico, a Democratic stronghold, races for the Legislature and other local offices are often decided in the primary, as Republicans rarely can peel off enough Democrats to win a race.
That's a problem for democracy.
Party loyalists say it makes sense to keep the system closed to those who aren't members.
"If we're going to have parties putting up candidates in the fall, I think members of that party should choose who represents them," Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, tells SFR.
Democrats and Republicans differ in their view on primary elections, though neither party endorses open primaries.
Democrats support access issues including same-day registration, where voters can show up at the polls, register and vote, as well as automatic voter registration, which puts New Mexicans on the voter rolls as soon as they turn 18, unless they opt out. They'd still have to choose to register with a party, which means the ranks of DTS voters would likely expand further.
Egolf says same-day registration would solve primary ballot access concerns, but still preserve the sanctity of a party's selection process. With that as an option—one he anticipates coming before the Legislature in 2019—Egolf says he's unmoved by the argument that publicly-funded elections should be open to all voters.
Republicans lean less toward ballot access and more toward election security. “We support enacting legislation that protects everyone’s individual vote and the integrity of our electoral process by requiring proof of identity and citizenship to vote at the polls,” says a statement on the New Mexico Republican Party website.
Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, recently broke with party ranks and penned an opinion piece announcing her preference for a modified open primary system. Every registered voter could cast a ballot in a primary, she argued, they'd just have to pick which ballot. "Democrats would still vote in the Democratic primary, Republicans would still vote in the Republican primary and Libertarians would still vote in the Libertarian primary," she wrote. "The only change? Every independent and minor party voter would choose one primary major party ballot to cast their vote."
It wasn't super popular among party faithful.
“I do sense a lot of fear about this kind of change,” Toulouse Oliver tells SFR on a recent morning. “I’ve gotten a lot of negative feedback from party folks.”
But she sees benefits for political parties that have lost clout with the Citizens United-era court decisions allowing megadonors to skip the party filter and take their message directly to voters. What's more, political parties have done a rather sorry job of rounding up the vote. Almost seven out of every 10 Democrats decided not to bother casting a ballot this year. For Republicans, that number was almost eight of 10. Even those with "skin in the game" of party politics aren't terribly interested in it.
"At the end of the day, more and more people are choosing not to identify with a political party," Toulouse Oliver says. She thinks banning independent voters from a primary system is "only reinforcing a lack of desire to participate [in any election] and to participate in party elections and to be affiliated with a political party."
A political science professor at the University of New Mexico, Lonna Atkeson, agrees. "The benefit of an open primary is that ultimately, it brings people into your party. And you make them more committed partisans," she tells SFR.
There's rarely enough organized cynical voting to tilt an election, Atkeson says. In Indiana's 2008 Democratic primary, she says Republicans showed up to cross party lines and may have helped Hillary Clinton, the perceived weaker candidate in a general election, defeat Barack Obama. But that's just not the case on any sort of broader scale.
Atkeson doesn't envision a sea of disenfranchised voters yearning to cast a primary ballot. Unaffiliated voters tend to be less reliable, she says, and most aren't truly "independent." Rather, they vote with one party most of the time. True independents who might vote either way are just a small fraction of the 270,000 or so who fall into the DTS category, she says. Maybe 15 percent. Those voters tend to only mobilize when there's a really contentious election.
Proponents argue that instead of hurting major political parties, open primaries help their cause by filtering extreme candidates and pushing dialogue away from the fringes. A primary that includes less polarized voters results in more electable general election candidates, they say.
"The current system offers no incentive to compromise," says Bob Perls, an open primary advocate in New Mexico. In such a system, Perls believes, political district boundaries will continue to be drawn to protect one party or the other, resulting in ideologically inflexible candidates whose "only concern is being primaried; 95 percent of New Mexicans have no say and no choice" if they show up in November expecting to cast a decisive vote.