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Partner Spotlight: How New Mexico Open Elections is fixing the Primary Problem

Three things to think about this October 12th

Ross Sherman
Press Director
October 12, 2023

Hi Friend,

As I mentioned in the last edition of Three Things, many of us attended the American Democracy Summit (ADS) in Los Angeles last month. Massive kudos to our partners at RepresentUs for hosting an amazing event, and they have a great recap where you can check out the highlights. It’s so important that the democracy reform movement has this space to connect, talk strategy, and otherwise inspire each other to tackle this incredibly important work together. It was so energizing to meet folks across the country who are making a difference in their communities and moving our country in the direction of truly putting voters first.

Unite America participated in three panels at ADS, from best messaging practices to the benefits of California’s top-two nonpartisan primary system. Our Research Assistant Carlo Macomber summarized three key takeaways from each panel on our blog.

1. Partner Spotlight: New Mexico Open Elections wants to open the state’s primaries

Exciting news: We’re launching our first “Storytelling Series” piece this week! As a philanthropic venture fund, Unite America invests in state campaigns and national organizations working to advance solutions to the “Primary Problem.” Each month, we’ll feature a partner organization who is driving this work or other in-depth storytelling pieces that illuminate the Primary Problem in communities across the country.

The first edition of the Storytelling Series is a Partner Spotlight featuring New Mexico Open Elections (NMOE). Last month, our very own Alana Persson sat down with three members of the NMOE to hear more about the Primary Problem in New Mexico, and what they’re doing about it.

New Mexico has a closed primary system, which means that more than 300,000 New Mexicans registered as independents have no right to participate. That’s absurd. Every eligible voter should have the freedom to vote for any candidate in every taxpayer-funded election. To fix this, NMOE is working on passing a semi-open primaries bill — which would allow independents to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary.  

To learn more about NMOE’s efforts, and why this issue is so important to Sila, Bob, and Perry, check out the Partner Spotlight.

2. The conservative case for election reform

Speaking of Unite America partners, our friends at the American Enterprise Institute are out with a new report: “Conservatives Should Look More Closely at Systemic Election Reforms.” The report makes the point that although Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike are increasingly disillusioned with our current election system, Republicans have shown the most suspicion toward changing the system (although both parties have historically opposed these changes). Oftentimes, the reason for Republicans’ opposition is a fear that election reform will disadvantage them, but that’s not the case.

Report author Kevin Kosar puts it well: “In their rush to oppose systemic election reforms, some on the political right have errantly assumed that systemic election reforms inevitably elect more liberals. There is no evidence that this is the case. Indeed, conservatives have won in places that have enacted systemic election reforms.”

Election reforms that solve the Primary Problem — namely nonpartisan primaries and instant runoffs — have party-neutral outcomes. And the election reform movement needs more prominent Republicans, Democrats, and independents to support the effort.

3. The “Chaos Caucus” is still at it

As of writing, the United States still doesn’t have a Speaker of the House. In the last Three Things, I wrote that the Primary Problem was helping fuel a government shutdown. At the time, eight House members — which we referred to as the “Chaos Caucus” — were preventing then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy from getting the votes necessary to avoid an impending shutdown. Our analysis showed that on average, they were effectively elected to the U.S. House in partisan primaries by 12% of eligible voters in their districts — a shocking fact that Washington Post Columnist Karen Tumulty highlighted in a column.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Speaker McCarthy changed course in the final hours before the deadline, and put a funding bill on the floor that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. But before any ink was dry on calling it a win for consensus, he was ousted from the Speakership by — you guessed it — eight members of his own party.

Just like the Primary Problem helped explain the shutdown brinkmanship, it also helps explain the successful effort to oust McCarthy from the speakership. All eight members who voted to oust McCarthy come from districts that are considered uncompetitive in the general election. Therefore, this group was effectively elected to the U.S. House in partisan primaries that were decided by an average of just 11% of eligible voters in their districts. The votes cast in these primary elections represent just 0.2% of eligible voters in the country.

If we want a more functional government capable of solving the country’s greatest challenges, let alone agreeing on a Speaker or keeping the lights on, we need to solve the Primary Problem.