Why One in Five Registered Voters in New Mexico Couldn’t Vote Tuesday

Closed primaries in 12 states keep registered voters away from polls and polarize Congress.

Ron Peterson checks signatures on mail in ballots at the voting machine warehouse on November 4, 2008 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
June 3, 2014, 11:35 a.m.

New Mex­ic­ans are head­ing to the polls Tues­day to vote in the state’s primary elec­tions, but al­most a fifth of the state’s re­gistered voters are be­ing left out. Nearly 241,000 voters there are in­eligble to cast a primary bal­lot be­cause they have not de­clared a party af­fil­i­ation.

New Mex­ico, like 11 oth­er states, has a closed primary in which only voters re­gistered with a party can vote. In­de­pend­ent and un­af­fili­ated voters are not al­lowed to par­ti­cip­ate — even though they are taxed to fund the elec­tion, just like their par­tis­an neigh­bors.

This year, the num­ber of Amer­ic­ans who identi­fy as polit­ic­ally in­de­pend­ent reached an all-time high of 42 per­cent. Since 2008, in­de­pend­ents have out­numbered both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats.

Now, Al­buquerque law­yer J. Ed­ward Hol­ling­ton is bring­ing a law­suit against the state to force it to open its polls to all re­gistered voters. The law­suit ar­gues that closed primar­ies vi­ol­ate the state con­sti­tu­tion, which guar­an­tees voters’ rights to cast bal­lots “at all elec­tions for pub­lic of­ficers.” Hol­ling­ton wants the court to al­low un­af­fili­ated voters to choose the primary they want to par­ti­cip­ate in, mov­ing to what’s known as a semi-closed mod­el. Semi-closed primar­ies ex­ist already in a hand­ful of states, in­clud­ing Mas­sachu­setts and New Hamp­shire.

Closed primar­ies were con­ceived in the 1970s to pre­vent cros­sov­er vot­ing — that is, to keep Re­pub­lic­ans from mess­ing with Demo­crat­ic primar­ies, or vice versa. The policy was driv­en by Demo­crats, wrote Mark Siegel, who was ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee at the time these changes were tak­ing place. Closed primar­ies came about largely in re­sponse to the 1972 Michigan Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial primary, where Re­pub­lic­ans crossed over en masse to vote for Alabama Gov. George Wal­lace, a “ra­cist, un­elect­able Demo­crat,” ac­cord­ing to Siegel.

Writ­ing in 2011, Siegel looked back on the fal­lout from these changes. He called closed primar­ies “a sig­ni­fic­ant factor in the po­lar­iz­a­tion of Amer­ic­an polit­ics,” ar­guing that the res­ult­ing un­waver­ing fo­cus on party polit­ics pro­duced “a Con­gress of ideo­logues.” He sup­por­ted mov­ing all states to­ward the semi-closed sys­tem.

At present, primary laws vary widely between states. Thir­teen states have com­pletely open primar­ies and 12, in­clud­ing New Mex­ico, have com­pletely closed primar­ies. Two states, Wash­ing­ton and Cali­for­nia, have “top-two” primar­ies, where every can­did­ate’s name is lis­ted on the primary bal­lot (every re­gistered voter gets the same bal­lot, re­gard­less of party af­fil­i­ation) and the top two most-voted-for names ap­pear on the gen­er­al bal­lot. The re­main­ing states have mixed sys­tems, where polit­ic­al parties are al­lowed dif­fer­ent policies re­gard­ing their party’s primary elec­tions. Semi-closed primar­ies fall in­to this cat­egory.

The im­pend­ing law­suit against New Mex­ico’s closed primar­ies is not the first of its kind. In 2011, Idaho Sec­ret­ary of State Ben Ysursa tried to change his state’s closed primary sys­tem, but Re­pub­lic­ans in the state Le­gis­lature shut him down. In Pennsylvania, a bill to open primar­ies has lay dormant for over a year. And in Ore­gon, a cam­paign to put an ini­ti­at­ive to open the state’s primar­ies on the Novem­ber bal­lot has raised more than $120,000.

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