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Advocates for open primary elections target New Mexico

November 14, 2018

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — National advocates for opening primary elections to independent voters have asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to block public funding of the state’s primary election system that limits participation to party-affiliated voters.

The petition from Open Primaries Education Fund argues that the state’s closed primary system violates the state constitutional prohibition of public donations to private entities. It was filed on behalf of four registered voters, including a Democrat, a Republican and two with no party affiliation.

“The founding principle of our democracy is no taxation without representation,” said Jeremy Gruber, lead attorney in the litigation for Open Primaries, on Wednesday. “What our lawsuit is challenging is the public funding of elections that exclude large numbers of taxpayers.”

If the Supreme Court were to decide to hear the issue and then sided with the plaintiffs, it would be up to the Legislature to adopt a new primary system. The lawsuit could carry over to litigation in other states, based on common prohibitions of government donations to private enterprises, Gruber said.

New Mexico is one of nine so-called closed primary states. The state’s Supreme Court in February upheld some provisions of the current primary system.

Support for a more open primary system has been voiced by Democratic Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham and recently re-elected Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

Advocates for the current system say it ensures distinct ideological choices in general elections and helps voters make informed choices.

Proponents of allowing independents to participate in party primaries say more and more people are being shut out of the process. About 22 percent for registered voters decline party affiliations in New Mexico.

Gruber of Open Primaries says record turnout in the Nov. 6 midterm election is an exception to a steady trend toward disengagement under the current primary rules.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, plans to introduce a bill next year that would allow political parties to decide on whether or not to open their primary elections to people outside the party. Without that change, he said that the state is determining who can engage with major political parties in violation of guarantees to freedom of association.

“From a personal perspective, I guess I do wonder what it means to be the nominee of the Republican Party if you’re selected by people who aren’t Republican,” he said.

To make its case to the Supreme Court, Open Primaries has hired as counsel Democratic former state attorney general Paul Bardacke.

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