COMMENTARY: With the recent secretary of state scandal, the last gridlocked state legislative session and the low voter turnout of the recent Albuquerque city elections (8.5 percent, the lowest since 1974) it is clear that people are fed up and turned off to politics as usual. What can we do?
We need to open up the primary election system. Twenty-five percent of New Mexico’s voters are independent and they are completely shut out of the first round of voting in our state, while party voters have significantly limited choices.
When the first round of voting is restricted to narrow party bases, we get a system that prioritizes party loyalty over the public good. It is a significant contributor to the unproductive partisanship that grips our state.
New Mexico Open Primaries is dedicated to electoral reform that creates a political system that rewards coalition building and problem solving. Our belief is that you should not have to join a private political party to vote. Voter apathy is driven by a feeling of alienation from a system that seems to represent big, moneyed interests and a recognition that politicians seem more intent on winning than listening.
Where can we turn for an example of a state that functions and maybe even works well? Nebraska!
Eighty years ago, Nebraskans were faced with extensive corruption in their legislature and a level of dysfunction that made it almost impossible to govern. Sound familiar?
Nebraskans answered the challenge by enacting critical democracy reform. The state has nonpartisan, open primaries that allow independents and all voters to vote in a single, nonpartisan primary. The top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to the general election.
That is what we are seeking here in New Mexico.
Nebraska’s positive example
The effects of primary reform in Nebraska have been transformative. Absent the harsh confines of party platforms and strict party leadership, Nebraska has built a highly inclusive and productive political culture despite the fact that it is 71 percent Republican.
Legislators see themselves as independent trustees of their constituents first and party members second, so they vote their conscience and not the party line.
Nebraska’s nonpartisan system has empowered legislators to build relationships across the aisle and embrace new ideas that are at the core of being productive — they listen to, and respond to, both their colleagues and constituents.
Minority party members have the opportunity to hold important committee chairmanships and get full hearings on their bills. Diverse coalitions form issue-by-issue with debates on issues critical to the public prevailing over partisan politics.
Even the governor must reach out to individual members for support when he wants to advance an agenda. The corrosive effects of partisan gamesmanship are diminished and all Nebraskans have much wider access to, and influence over, the legislative agenda.
Nebraska has reinvented what it means to be a “red state” as a result. Legislators have engaged debate on a wide range of policy issues, even passing legislation that would be considered progressive or left of center in other states, from raising the minimum wage and gas tax to immigration reform and ending the death penalty.
Nebraska offers a blueprint of good government and social innovation that New Mexico could learn from. Nebraska is working.
Partisanship is poisoning our democracy
Contrast this reality to Nebraska’s congressional delegation, which is selected through a traditional partisan process and consistently tows the party line. They often vote the exact opposite of their state counterparts on the exact same issues! In the partisan arena of Washington D.C., all the independence and creativity that are consistent hallmarks of Nebraska’s nonpartisan system have disappeared and nothing is getting done.
Contrast it even further with Nebraska’s neighbor to the south, Kansas, which has an almost identical Republican legislative supermajority but which operates in a highly partisan election and governing environment like New Mexico.
The party, not the people, sets the Kansas agenda and legislators in Kansas have greenlighted an agenda that has proved catastrophic to the state. State revenues have plummeted, their credit rating has been downgraded and job growth has fallen well behind Nebraska and many of its other neighbors.
The Nebraska nonpartisan system reveals that the real problem with politics-as-usual is not left-versus-right as party leaders would have you believe but something we’ve known in New Mexico for some time — a broken political system that is now largely uncompetitive, lacking true debate and one that is focused mostly on winning and not on governing.
Partisanship is poisoning our great democracy and leaving voters with the false choice of playing along or sitting it out. Apathy is a natural response to uncompetitive, bitter elections.
In a nonpartisan system, the political parties are participants, not gatekeepers. We don’t need gatekeepers. Let’s stop blaming the voters for not engaging in a broken system and fix it. Let’s bring the Nebraska model to New Mexico!
Bob Perls is the founder of New Mexico Open Primaries and a former New Mexico state representative. Jeremy Gruber is the senior vice president of Open Primaries, a national election-reform organization.