On June 3, 2014, voters went to the polls to cast their ballot for nominees for the General Election – if, that is, they were registered as a Democrat or Republican.
Latest reports from the Secretary of State's office show only one in five voters participated in the election. Low voter turnout is undoubtedly caused by a number of factors, but one thing these anemic numbers definitely reflect is the fact that nearly one-quarter-million registered voters could NOT vote in the primary. Why? Because these voters declined to identify themselves as a Republican or Democrat when they registered to vote.
New Mexico is one of only eleven states that operate on a closed primary system, meaning voters must register as a Republican or Democrat in order to vote in the state's primary election. This restriction is unconstitutional.
According to the New Mexico Bureau of Elections, there are currently more than 240,000 voters who do not affiliate as either a Democrat or Republican. These non-affiliated voters are officially categorized as "Declined to State" (also referred to as Independent voters). They are relegated to an electoral limbo during the state's primary election, with their voices silenced until the November general election.
In fact, the number of voters who choose to remain unaligned with a political party for purposes of voter registration continues to grow.
Between 2000 and 2014, the number of voters identified as Independents grew by more than 130 percent, or more than 30 percent a year.
Today Independent voters comprise just slightly more than 19 percent of the state's voting electorate, numbers that are in step with recent national trends. According to Gallup's 2014 polling, voters who identify themselves as an "Independent" have grown to represent 45 percent of the electorate, outnumbering voters who identify as either Democrats (30 percent) or Republicans (23 percent).
Last week we filed a lawsuit in State District Court aimed at ensuring Independent voters have a voice at the ballot box during New Mexico's primary elections. This suit is asking a district judge to affirm the state constitution's guarantee that every registered New Mexican has the right to vote in "all elections for public officers." We are requesting that the courts affirm this language and that the state's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Dianna Duran, allow Independent voters access to the primary ballot box.
Across the nation, several states have established semi-closed primary systems, allowing unaffiliated voters the opportunity to have their voices heard, alongside voters identified as Democrats and Republicans. States such as Oklahoma and Arizona have successfully run semi-closed primary elections for a number of years, ensuring all voters in their state can participate in the electoral process.
In a semi-closed primary election, unaffiliated voters check into their polling location and request one major party ballot. Contrary to what detractors are saying, this process is highly organized and only allows the voter access to only one ballot, either Democrat or Republican.
Voting is one of our most fundamental constitutionally protected rights, but the State of New Mexico continues to infringe on that right, election after election. Our state's constitution states that registered voters can only be disqualified from voting "by reason of criminal conviction or felony." However, New Mexico continues to violate this language by continuing to deny Independent voters access to the primary ballot box.
In addition, all taxpayers of New Mexico pay for primary elections. Since all taxpayers, regardless of their voter registration, are obliged to foot the bill for these elections, all taxpayers who are registered to vote should expect to have the right to vote in all primary elections. According to a recent article in the Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico's 2014 primary election cost the taxpayers more than $3 million - - a high price tag for the quarter-million voters who were potentially banned from participating in the election process.
It's time for the State to move toward an election process that's inclusive of those hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised voters, thereby increasing the voter pool and allowing political candidates the opportunity to be held accountable by a greater number of individuals.
Some insiders within the Democratic and Republican Parties oppose a more inclusive system, arguing that allowing unaffiliated voters access to their ballots would violate their right of association. We believe that a political party's right to associate does not trump an individual's right to vote in a primary election for public office.
A more inclusive election system is something that every voter can support and a goal that the State of New Mexico should strive toward. We hope that the courts and the New Mexico Secretary of State will affirm our voting rights in time for the 2016 primary election, because no voter should ever be turned away again from the polls because they are not registered as a member of a major political party.