COMMENTARY: I have great respect for Bob Perls from his time in the Legislature and for his dedication to improving the function of our government and our elections. And I greatly appreciate his efforts to increase voter participation in New Mexico. That said, I highly doubt his suggestion that an open-primary, top-two system will lead to the desired results.
I contend that the main reason for low voter participation is low candidate participation. By that I mean there is a severe lack of choice in our elections. Two candidates, no matter how different, cannot begin to represent the diversity of New Mexicans.
While the top-two system allows for more participation by opening up the primary to more voters, it doesn’t actually encourage more participation since at the general election there are still only two candidates on the ballot. Now if Mr. Perls were talking about a top-four primary, that would be different.
Just in case I was missing something, I took a look at Nebraska’s 2014 legislative elections. While 47-percent turnout is admittedly better than New Mexico’s 40 percent, it still shows that more than half of all Nebraskans did not vote in the general election. And, frankly, their open primary only attracted 27 percent of their potential voters — hardly something to shout about.
Why? Because of a lack of candidates. Fourteen of Nebraska’s 25 legislative districts had only one or two candidates — all guaranteed to “win” the top-two primary and go on to November. And in 21 of 25 districts, the same person who got the most votes in May won the general.
If these statistics don’t scream “why bother?” to voters, I don’t know what does.
While it is hard to argue with the fact that since the primary election is paid for by the state, all citizens should be able to cast ballots, there are other reforms that would do a better job at increasing turnout:
- First, get rid of the gerrymandered single-seat districts that guarantee “safe seats” for one party or the other and create an independent redistricting commission.
- Second, reduce the number of signatures needed for minor-party and independent candidates to get on the ballot. New Mexico’s 3-percent requirement for independent candidates is among the highest in the nation, and prevented even an incumbent member of the Public Education Commission from running for reelection in 2014.
- Finally, create a system of universal voter registration, so that voters are not disenfranchised because they weren’t aware of the registration deadlines and requirements.
Mr. Perls’ goals are laudable, but the fact remains that having only two candidates on the general election ballot will not increase voter participation.
Rick Lass is an election reform advocate residing in Mimbres.