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With party primary elections just ahead, you won’t be shut out just because you’re not registered as a Democrat, Republican or Libertarian. Come June 7, for the first time, New Mexicans who aren’t D, R or L will be allowed to vote in the primaries under new provisions in state law. Anyone who is registered to vote in the general election can temporarily switch from “decline to state” affiliation to Republican, Democrat or Libertarian to choose  candidates in one of those parties’ primaries —and immediately switch back to “independent” or “DTS” if he or she so chooses.

Corrales’ Bob Perls, founder and president of New Mexico Open Elections, held an online press conference with N.M. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver April 26 to explain how the same-day registration rules now allow any “independent” or “decline to state” voter  to participate in one of the major party primaries.

Toulouse Oliver clarified that New Mexico remains a “closed primary” state, so no one can vote in a party primary unless he or she is registered with that particular party… but the law now allows a person to register with that party on election day to get the ballot for those races. But it doesn’t mean that voter will have to remain in that party a moment longer than it takes to go online and switch back.

“We now have an option for non-major party voters to participate in these primaries for the first time ever in New Mexico,” she added. “That is because, for the first time ever, we will allow same-day voter registration not just in early voting in a County Clerk’s Office but we are also now pursuant to legislation offering the option of same-day registration in every single election day polling location.”

That means anyone who is not registered to vote or wants to update their voter registration can do so on election day where they normally vote.

“Same day registration works only at a polling place,” she added. “You can either go to your County Clerk’s office where every County Clerk’s office will have same-day registration available during early voting, or  at every polling location on election day.

“A voter will have to bring a New Mexico driver’s license or N.M. identification card issued through the Motor Vehicle Division along with any document that shows an address in the county. The voter has to come in person.”

All that’s required then is a few minutes wait for the clerk to process the registration, and then they receive their ballot to vote. “From they minute they walk in and start the voter registration process to the minute they get their ballot should not take more than five or ten minutes,” Toulouse Oliver estimated.

“Now that takes us to the interesting part of how this applies to people who are not members of any major party. Since we are a ‘closed primary’ state, you have to be a member of a major party —Democrat, Republican or Libertarian— to vote in the primary.

“However, due to the same-day registration law, Senate Bill 4, which was passed during the special session in 2020, we now have a provision that allows minor party voters and ‘decline to state’ voters the ability to change their registration using same day registration to vote in a primary,” the Secretary of State explained.

After that introduction, Perls said this change is one of a series of measures meant to decrease America’s extreme polarization. “As a former U.S. diplomat, I recognize that political polarization of the country as a national security issue.

“Our country is not functioning the way it was designed to function. If we can’t listen to each other and work with each other, our country becomes ungovernable.

“The hyper-partisanship is more than just a frustration for some people, it’s really an existential threat to America. So what my group, and other groups around the country have been doing is trying to create a system where as many eligible voters as possible can vote without barriers and therefore candidates and elected officials must reach out and listen to all voters all of the time, not just the party base.”

Perls said a continuum of electoral reform campaigns is occurring all around the country. “What Senate Bill 4 did is just a small part of that effort. What it will do is allow 25 percent of the voters in New Mexico to vote for the first time.”

As it stands now, he pointed out, 25 percent of eligible voters in this state are affiliated with minor parties, identify as independents or are citizens who “decline to state” a party affiliation —all of whom could not previously vote in primaries.

Perls was quick to concede that the change brought by SB4 did not yield an ideal result. “We still don’t have ‘open primaries,’ but let’s just use me as an example. I am a ‘decline to state’ voter. I’ll be able to walk up on primary election day, present myself as a ‘DTS’ voter and say ‘I’d like to vote.’

“I’ll have to change my party registration on the spot, which I hope will only take five or ten minutes. Let’s say I want to vote in the Democratic primary, so I’ll have to ask for the  Democratic ballot. And I won’t be able to mix-and-match. I can’t vote for some candidates on the Democratic ballot and some on the Republican or Libertarian ballot; I’ll have to choose one partisan ballot.

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“At that point, I will be registered as a Democrat, and I can either stay that way after primary election day, or I can go online and re-register as a ‘decline to state’ voter.”

Perls said his nonpartisan group, New Mexico Open Elections, sees the new process as a baby step forward to help independent voters and independent candidates. The group has begun to re-focus on more sweeping electoral reforms, such as what is being implemented in Alaska.

He described that as a ‘unified primary’ in which all candidates run on the same ballot; the top four candidates advance to the general election in November where ranked choice voting is used.

A few days after his virtual press conference with the Secretary of State, Perls was interviewed by Corrales Comment about why these and future reforms are important.

Since he resigned from the U.S. Foreign Service and returned to Corrales in 2014, he has devoted much of his time and effort into reforming the American political system.

Corrales Comment: To what extent is the public’s growing lack of faith and appreciation for government a factor in the dysfunction of the political system:

Perls: “That’s a complex question, but I think the root cause of it is the decline of the middle class. There are so many people who are struggling to make a living, maybe working two or three jobs, they are so overwhelmed that it’s hard to tune into anything other than trying to feed your family. America has become much less upwardly mobile; that our middle and working classes are in decline.

“A lot of that is due to policies that are passed by parties that are very much in bed with special interests. So you take that economic piece, where people are struggling, and then this other piece, where you have these warring factions as political parties that leads to gridlock, and we see nothing getting done.”

He thinks changing how political campaigns are run and financed and how primary and general elections are organized can begin to solve those systemic problems. “I don’t think we should underestimate how we elect and finance candidates can radically change the outcome of legislation and radically change how people will perceive a legislature that functions and a Congress that functions, and a president and a governor who seem to honestly want to represent all people and not just a narrow, political elite.”

 He offered more details about how opening up New Mexico’s primaries will help.

Perls: “I am registered as an independent, and my group is scrupulously nonpartisan —or as some would say, ‘transpartisan’— but what I’m going to say now is going to sound a little more partisan, only because there are Republican state legislatures that many of your readers are aware of that are really rolling back pretty fundamental laws dealing with expanding the franchise. Those would make it harder to vote absentee, harder to vote by mail and precluding County Clerks and others from setting up ballot drop boxes. And part of that is to roll back open primaries legislation. We’re seeing that trend.”

But he sees elements of both the Republican and Democratic Parties “very uncomfortable with the idea of expanding the franchise. They’re very comfortable with having the regular voters turn out and vote regularly.

Corrales Comment: Is the number of independent voters going up in New Mexico? If so, why is that?

Perls: “The number of registered independent voters is going up dramatically in all states. It’s because people are feeling so frustrated with the warring two-party system. They feel like both major parties are primarily concerned about winning but not necessarily about governing; they’re not at all interested in compromise and coalition-building. So, it’s a major turn-off.

“When you look at all the negative campaigning and the tens of millions of dollars spent on U.S. Senate and House races, 90 percent of that money is spent on running extremely negative ads against the opponent on television and social media. One of the greatest voter suppression tools right now is negative campaigning. People just tune out; they stop listening.

“So many people de-register from the major parties and become independents.”

Perls said a well-documented result of ranked choice voting is that it decreases negative campaigning, because the candidate wants to be most voters’ first choice, but the second choice of all the other voters. “If I start trashing your first choice candidate, you’re  not going to rank me as your second choice or maybe even rank me last.”

Perls said all of the volunteer work he has done over the past six years to bolster the democratic process is meant to lead to “competitive elections so that we’re creating a system that requires candidates to talk to all voters from all walks of life all the time, and then once elected, they represent everybody.”

As it is now, he added, “90 percent of elected officials pretty much just represent the party base, whether they are Republicans or Democrats.”

In an interview April 7, 2015, Perls explained, “What I see in international relations reinforces what I see in domestic policies; that there’s not sufficient dialog between the left and the right. The great dysfunction in American politics is driven because we have politicians who don’t meet to talk to each other any more. They raise money from the far left and the far right, and that directly impacts our international relations.”

He pointed out that he had a similar view 30 years ago as he butted heads with entrenched Democratic politicians as a young State Representative for then-District 44 in 1993-97.

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