A bill in the N.M. Legislature that would have allowed any registered voter to vote in the primary election for either major party died in committee earlier this year, but a new bill is being drafted that sets up a top-four choice ballot in non-partisan primaries and then ranked choice voting in the following general election. House Bill 79, or previous versions, had been considered in the legislature over the past five years as advocated by Corrales’ former State Representative Bob Perls, who heads what is now known as New Mexico Open Elections.
In the 2021 legislature, the proposal was co-sponsored by Corrales Representative Daymon Ely who testified that the state’s current party-member-only voting for the primaries excludes nearly 300,000 citizens. In the early days of the 2021 legislative session, HB79 was favorably voted out of the State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee with a 6-3 margin. But it died on a 6-6 vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
Under terms of that bill, New Mexicans who are registered as independents, or as members of minor parties, could vote in party primary elections of the Democratic, Republican or Libertarian Parties simply by requesting a ballot; there would be no need to register as a member of one of those parties to participate in the primary. This year, the current N.M. Secretary of State, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, testified in favor of the bill. Perls said April 20 that the N.M. Legislative Council Services had begun drafting “a top four nonpartisan open primaries bill using ranked choice voting in the general election. “This is the kind of reform that New Mexico needs to break the gridlock and hyper-partisanship that plagues Santa Fe and DC.”
In recent years, New Mexicans have increasingly joined the ranks of independent voters. Around 22 percent of voters decline to register as Democrat, Republican or Libertarian. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXIV No.9 June 20, 2015 “Corrales-Based Campaign Aims for Open Primary Elections.”) A Corrales businessman and former U.S. Foreign Service officer, Perls last year ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Sandoval County Clerk. Elected to the N.M. House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1992, Perls served in until 1996.
In 2016, he explained why has advocated for open primaries. “New Mexico has more uncontested political races than any state, fewer independent or minor party candidates that any state, the highest and most discriminatory ballot access requirements of any state… and we wonder why democracy does not work well here. The answer is that we need competitive elections with engaged voters for it to work for everyone,” Perls said. “New Mexico Open Primaries believes that we must reduce the discriminatory ballot access requirements of independent and third party candidates to offer more choices for New Mexican voters.”
The non-profit organization is now known as New Mexico Open Elections. “The fundamental belief is that you shouldn’t have to join a political party to vote. In New Mexico, we have a closed primary system; that means you have to register Democrat or register Republican to vote in a primary,” Perls explained. “New Mexico has been a heavily Democratic state, and therefore probably 90 percent of the important decisions are made in the Democratic primary. Most elections are decided in the Democratic Party primary. That’s because there’s either no competition from the other party in the general election or there’s token competition in the general election. Ninety percent of the time, the candidate who comes out the winner in the Democratic party gets elected.
“Here is why it’s important for a primary to be open. These ‘electoral process issues’ are complex, not very sexy and yet are the root-cause of the political dysfunction we see in America and in New Mexico.
“The idea of New Mexico Open Primaries is to open up the primaries so that independents can vote and so that people don’t have to register as a Democrat or Republican to vote in the first-round election.
“Most people think of the party primary as a first-round election; what our organization wants to do is educate people about the fact that elections are a fundamental responsibility of state government, and that it is going about it backward to have a private club, or private association [parties], running our elections.
“I believe strongly that parties serve a function, and I believe strongly that this movement is not anti-party,” Perls insisted. “But we need to look at why we have the gridlock and hyper-partisanship and dysfunction that we have in this country. The root cause of that is, in fact, partisanship.”
He thinks it’s wrong —even illegal— to allow private organizations, such as parties, to decide who they will allow to vote in an election for a public office. “Our tax dollars pay for primary elections, and it is illegal (or should be, once the courts catch up based on the N.M. anti-donation clause) for public dollars to go to private associations. We don’t tolerate it in any situation except the most important activity we do in our country —when we vote.”
As a Democrat, Perls won election to the N.M. House of Representatives in 1992 and was re-elected in 1994 before running unsuccessfully for Congress and then for a seat on the N.M. Public Regulations Commission. He applied for admission to the Foreign Service Corps after selling his medical equipment sales business, Monitech, in 2008. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in January 2010.
During his four years in the N.M. House, he was regarded as something of a maverick for not strictly toeing the Democratic party line. That independent thinking cost him support from party leaders. The movement toward open primaries in state level elections began in the 1990s.