The Importance of Voting in Primary Elections
Primary election voting is now underway in New Mexico. Unfortunately, voter turnout in primaries is often relatively low compared with general elections. Nationally in 2018, the last non-presidential primary, only about one in five eligible voters cast a ballot. This means that a very small group of voters, a group less representative of the general electorate, is determining which candidates will appear on the general election ballot in November.
One factor contributing to lower turnout is eligibility to participate. New Mexico, requires that a voter be affiliated with one of the three major parties (Democratic, Republican, or Libertarian), leaving out those who have declined to state a party affiliation (often referred to as independent voters). The reasoning behind this restriction is that party members should select the candidates who will represent the party in the general election. With the increasing number of voters choosing not to affiliate with a party, many voters are excluded from an important step in the process. For example, in Dona Ana County almost 27% of voters decline to state a party; statewide the number is 22.5%. Younger voters are less likely to indicate a major party preference, so are more likely to be left out.
New Mexico allows those not registered with a major party to vote in the primary by joining a major party the same day as voting in the relevant primary. (This opportunity to select party affiliation during primary voting is not available to those who are already members of a major party.) A voter wanting to return to decline-to-state or minor party status can change their registration back -- but not until 45 days after the primary election day.
During the last New Mexico legislative session there was a proposal to simplify this process but it did not come to a final vote. Under the proposal, the voter would receive a ballot for their preferred primary without having to register as a party member.
Other states have adopted alternative types of conducting primaries. For example, in New Hampshire unaffiliated voters declare affiliation with a party at the polls and may change back to an independent voter immediately after voting in the primary. Recently Alaska voters selected from all candidates for an office in the primary, regardless of party. The top four vote-getters then appear on the general election ballot and the state uses ranked choice voting to ensure that the final choice has at least 50% of the vote.
The League of Women Voters of New Mexico has invited all candidates to participate in the nonpartizan online voter guide at VOTE411.org. Voters can type in their address and identify all candidates on their ballot, with responses to questions about their background and positions in the candidates’ own words. If you do not find responses for your candidates, please encourage them to participate. Make a plan to vote in the primary no later than June 7. Learn about the candidates and cast your ballot.
Eileen VanWie and Kathy Brook are Co-Presidents League of Women Voters of Southern New Mexico.