COMMENTARY: All eyes are on the Middle Atlantic States these days, with the presidential nomination for both parties still up in the air — later than ever before. Even New Mexico and California have a shot at being “the deciders” this time.
But wait…. Have you registered in time? Or will you be turned away because you’re not either a Republican or a Democrat?
New Mexico’s closed primary system does not permit voters who decline to state their affiliation or who designate one of the smaller parties to vote in the primary election on June 7. And even if you signed up as either a Democrat or a Republican, you have to do it before May 10, almost a month before the election. If you forgot, or purposely procrastinated until the field of candidates sorted itself out, you’re out of luck.
That’s what happened to Ivanka and Eric Trump recently in New York, which, like New Mexico, is a closed primary state and has even more restrictive voter registration deadlines. They would have had to register by Oct 9, 2015. At least in New Mexico it’s only a month before the election.
But Common Cause New Mexico wants to know why we should have these barriers to voting at all. Participation is the basic test of democracy, and our history is one of expanding the franchise — first to non-property owners, and later to women, minorities and people under 21.
Now it’s time to put aside bureaucratic barriers and partisan politics. With state-run elections no longer a paper-and-pencil affair, we have the capacity to dramatically improve voter turnout with a modernized registration process and to enfranchise over a quarter of a million New Mexico voters who currently cannot vote in primaries.
Why not do it? Increasing voter turnout is inherently a good thing for our system, increasing civic engagement, decreasing cynicism and legitimizing the peoples’ choices.
New Mexico has already taken a giant step forward by allowing on-line voter registration, which was introduced earlier this year (to register click here). And as a result of a bill sponsored earlier this year by Rep. Jeff Steinborn, 17-year-olds who will be eligible to vote in November (because they will then be 18) can vote in the June 7 primary. It’s another good step.
Now New Mexico should join the 11 other states and the District of Columbia that use same-day registration. Unaffiliated and unregistered voters could simply show up on Election Day, and with the required identification, vote for representatives who will ultimately control their taxes, their safety, their quality of life. This system has worked to increase voter turnout in states that use it.
And if that is too new, or too difficult to administer, the state could simply extend the registration deadline until the Saturday before the election, another move that would increase voter turnout.
Approximately 230,000 New Mexicans who decline to state their party affiliation, or who register as independents or with a small party, are currently deprived of the right to vote in primaries. The system is “closed” to those voters, as it is in New York and 10 other states. The restrictive nature of our primary system flies in the face of demographic trends. Approximately 22 percent of voters are not Republican or Democrats — a percentage that has grown dramatically in the past decade as gridlock and partisan fighting has turned off voters by the truckload, especially young ones.
Yet these independent-minded voters (approximately 271,000 of them in New Mexico as of January 2016) are disenfranchised in primaries, where the winner of the general election is often decided because so many of our districts are one-party domains. And this year, they will be deprived of voting in a historic presidential primary — just when we need them to defuse partisanship and steady the course into the future!
In the name of democracy, New Mexico should open the doors of the voting booth to allow everyone who wants to exercise their sacred right — and duty — to do so.
Harrison is executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. It works to create open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and to empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process.