Nonprofit group pushes for open primary elections

New Mexico Open Primaries seeks to educate voters, gain support in San Juan County

Hannah Grover
Bob Parks, president and founder of New Mexico Open Primaries, describes his organization's goals during a meeting on Friday at the Step Back Inn in Aztec.
  • New Mexico Open Primaries founder Bob Perls met with local voters Friday in Aztec.
  • The group plans on providing classes to independent candidates about campaigning.
  • Several bills proposing open primaries were introduced by state lawmakers, but they died in committee.

AZTEC — A nonprofit group hoping to make a number of changes to the way New Mexico handles its primary elections made its case to local voters at a meeting Friday night in Aztec.

New Mexico Open Primaries founder Bob Perls highlighted what his hopes to accomplish within the state in the next few years, including pushing for a nonpartisan independent redistricting committee for the 2021 redistricting process, getting open primaries in the state, and making ballot access fair and equal for independent candidates and minor-party candidates.

One of the efforts it hopes to mount this year is providing classes to independent candidates about campaigning. Perls said the organization's board just approved the classes and that the support provided will be the same support a political party would provide to a candidate.

"We think that's an important service to bring New Mexico," Perls said.

Four San Juan County residents attended the Friday night meeting. The majority of them described themselves as lifelong Democrats who were frustrated with the recent elections.

"Most of us here don't feel like it's really working with the current system," said Vonda Rabach, a lifelong Democrat.

Perls said there are two arguments against having open elections, which are elections in which registered voters of one party are allowed to participate in another party's primary. The first argument he hears is that the primaries belong to the parties, and only party members should vote. The second argument is that voters from the other party will vote for the weaker of the candidates to help ensure their party's candidate wins. He said if taxpayer money is used to partially pay for primary elections, the elections should be open.

Bob Parks, president and founder of New Mexico Open Primaries, discusses his groups aims with local voters Friday at the Step Back Inn in Aztec.

Several bills that were introduced during the recent New Mexico legislative session proposed opening primaries to independent voters, or voters who declined to claim a political affiliation when they registered to vote. The bills ultimately died in committee this year.

Perls said people who are affiliated with a particular party should vote in their party's primary. If the legislation allowing independent voters to take part in party primaries had passed, members of minor parties that do not have primary elections, such as the Green Party of New Mexico, still would not have been able to vote in the primaries. However, voters unaffiliated with any party would have been permitted to vote in the Republican, the Democratic or the Libertarian primaries next year. Perls said the independent voters would only be able to vote in one party's primary, not all of them.

Perls said there are some states, like Vermont, that have nonpartisan primaries. Registered voters choose which party's ballot they want to vote on when they go to vote. Another example of a different type of primary is Nebraska's nonpartisan top two primary. The ballots are not party affiliated, and voters do not register based on parties. The top two candidates face off in the general election regardless of their political affiliation.

Gloria Lehmer, left, and Vonda Rabach listen to Bob Parks, president and founder of New Mexico Open Primaries Friday during a meeting at the Step Back Inn in Aztec.

"There are no party labels ever," Perls said.

Maine recently passed a ranked choice voting measure for primary elections, he said. That allows voters to rank candidates, expressing a preference for their first and second choice. Perls said that voting style was adopted in 2008 for Santa Fe's municipal elections, but it has not yet been implemented due to lack of the necessary software and machinery.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.