Party On!

For the first time on June 7, unaffiliated voters will be able to vote in the primary election—if they register at the polls with a major party

The first time he tried to vote in a New Mexico primary election at the age of 19, Mason Graham was turned away. He wasn’t registered with a major party and, therefore, wasn’t eligible to vote.

That’s because under New Mexico law, only voters registered with the state’s major parties—currently Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians—can vote in primaries. Historically, that has meant voters registered as “decline to state” (DTS) or voters registered with minor parties can’t participate.

Mason, now 27 and the project lead and policy analyst for the statewide Black Voters Collaborative, made sure he was a registered Democrat before the last presidential election so he could participate in the race. Now his organization—and a slew of other nonprofits, elected officials and potentially candidates—will be trying to get the word out before the June 7 election that non-affiliated voters can now register with a major party on election day and, for the first time, cast ballots.

The change for non-affiliated voters comes as a result of a provision added to a voting law in 2020, in conjunction with 2019 changes to the law allowing for same-day registration. This will be the first primary election in which both take place.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Bob Perls, founder and executive director of New Mexico Open Elections, held a news conference today to preview the new voting landscape. Same-day voting will be available at all voting-day locations and some early-voting locations (but is not available via absentee voting). Voters wanting to utilize same-day voter registration will need to present identification and proof of address (an FAQ on SDV is available on the SOS website). Toulouse Oliver estimates the entire process of same-day registration on primary election day should take five to 10 minutes.

Voters who are already registered with a major party can’t switch affiliations on election day; those changes must be made by May 10.

It remains to be seen how many of the state’s more than 300,000 DTS voters—close to 23% of the state’s approximate 1.3 million registered voters—will participate. But Toulouse Oliver and Perls anticipate—and hope—the new law will increase voter turnout. The state also has about 14,000 voters registered as “other,” which includes minor party affiliation.

“I truly believe—as you all are well aware as I’ve said it 100 times—the more participation we have in our democracy, the better,” Toulouse Oliver said during today’s briefing.

The change comes amidst growing numbers of non-affiliated voters here and nationwide. In New Mexico, the number has fluctuated in the recent past, but fewer than 5% of voters were registered as DTS in 1990. By the end of 2016, that number had grown to 19%. According to New Mexico Open Elections and the Independent Voting group, nationally DTS voters comprise the fastest growing segment of the electorate. And, according to Independent Voting, among millennials and Latinos, 50% identify as independent, as do 35% of Black voters between the ages of 18 and 34.

Perls’ organization advocates for eliminating the closed-primary system—New Mexico is just one of nine states operating with a closed primary. “If you combine that fact with the fact that mobility has never been greater, so we end up with all these newcomers who won’t realize” they won’t be able to vote if they aren’t registered with a major party.

Toulouse Oliver says, indeed, when she was Bernalillo County Clerk, people inevitably showed up to vote in the primary not realizing they weren’t eligible.

“I will tell you, as an election administrator, that is one of the most heartbreaking things,” she said, “not to be able to have their voices heard.”

The change in law isn’t as expansive as eliminating closed primaries all together but, Perls said, it’s a “baby step,” as his organization works toward more “sweeping reforms in the future.”

The change also could impact voter outreach from both nonprofit voter education groups, political organizations and candidates.

Graham says the Black Voters Collaborative will definitely be getting the word out.

“We’re a non-partisan organization, so we can encourage people to participate in the primary, but we can’t encourage them to vote Republican, Democrat or Libertarian,” he notes. BVC maintains an emphasis on registering Black voters that will also be a part of this election cycle.

“A lot of Black voters in New Mexico don’t take the time to register,” he says. “A lot of folks feel like they’ve been disenfranchised through a series of obstacles that might keep them from voting or registering.” That is compounded by the “historic exclusion of African Americans in our New Mexico history—there’s not a lot of political messaging catered to Black voters.”

The bottom line, Graham says, is to build participation. “We have to continue to educate everyone, not just African American voters, on why it’s important to be a part of this Democratic process: Our elected officials work for you.”

Common Cause New Mexico Campaign Director Mario Jimenez says, similarly, his non-partisan organization won’t be encouraging voters to register with any specific political party, but will be helping educate voters and encouraging participation.

“At the bare minimum, we do encourage people to keep an eye on the candidates if they do choose to remain unaffiliated,” to help potentially inform their participation in the general election. Common Cause also will once again be running an election protection program to ensure voters are receiving accurate and timely information for the election.

Will the major parties work to recruit DTS voters to re-register with them on Election Day? They should, Toulouse Oliver says.

“I do encourage the major political parties to do outreach to these individuals,” she says. “A lot of the work that gets done [by the parties] very base-vote centered because those are votes you can bank, so to speak... This really causes, in a perfect world, candidates to reach out to everybody. Our primary candidates should be reaching out to all voters in order to encourage them, not only to participate in the primary, but to vote for them.”

State Auditor Brian Colón, who is running for attorney general in the primary against Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez, tells SFR he’s long supported the move and has “skin in the game” for it to succeed. “I have always said I think we should open up the system,” he says. “I’m trying to communicate with as many voters as I can.”

SFR reached out to representatives of all three major parties to ask if they would be encouraging DTS voters to register with their parties as part of their pre-primary outreach.

Mike Curtis, communications director for the Republican Party of New Mexico, said in a statement via email: “The Republican Party has confidence in New Mexico voters to cast their ballots as they see fit.”

The Democratic Party of New Mexico’s communication director, Miranda van Dijk, said via email: “Democrats are committed to encouraging as many people as possible to participate in our democracy, including by voting in primary elections. In 2022 we will work to get out the vote by promoting every opportunity for New Mexicans to make their voices heard.”

And Chris Luchini, who is both chair of the state Libertarian Party and a candidate for sheriff in Los Alamos County (unopposed in the primary election), says his party “will be doing a campaign to encourage same day registrations and votes in our primary, however our focus will be on turning out our existing voters.” The Libertarian Party has a three-person contested gubernatorial race.

As for Santa Fe County, it has 22,851 non major-party voters—about 21% of the county’s registered voters.

Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, is one of them. He has been a DTS voter for two decades and is likely to utilize same-day voting in the primary to vote, but will switch back to DTS afterward (which will require voters to re-register again). While looking forward to voting in the state’s primary races, Nathan characterizes the new law as a “cynical” attempt by the major parties to recruit more DTS voters to their rolls.

Moreover, he says, at 62, he’s not a typical DTS voter. As noted, increasing number of young voters are choosing to not align with one political party over another.

“The theory among people like political scientists is that young people, all they’ve known is political paralysis and partisanship,” Nathan says, “and so it sorts of makes sense they are overwhelmingly registering as DTS.” Yet while politicians and others consistently talk about youth voter outreach, “they perpetuate this system that disenfranchises...young people” and people of color.

To be sure, Perls says, the move to allow unaffiliated voters to change parties on election day and vote isn’t “ideal,” but it’s a step along the way to address a problem he characterizes as “existential”: the country’s “political polarization.”

“If we can’t listen to each other and work with each other, the country becomes ungovernable,” he says. “What my group and other groups throughout the country have been doing is trying to create a system where as many eligible voters can vote without barriers, and a system where all candidates and elected officials must reach out and listen to all voters all of the time, not just necessarily the party base .”

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