Founded in 2015, New Mexico Open Elections (NMOE) is a movement of diverse individuals whose mission is to listen to all New Mexicans and their elected officials and provide reliable information about election reform and representational government to improve our political system.
NMOE’s priority is opening their closed primary system. Under the current system, more than 300,000 registered independents are barred from participating. That’s 23 percent of all registered voters.
Thanks to the work of NMOE’s advocacy and others, the New Mexico Senate passed a semi-open primary elections bill with bipartisan support earlier this year. The bill would dramatically improve representation in the state by allowing registered independents and those registered with other minor parties to participate in primary elections without changing their voter registration. While the New Mexico House failed to pass it this year, the progress is a significant step forward in the effort to increase voter participation in primary elections.
To learn more about the efforts underway in New Mexico, we spoke with the team at NMOE: Sila Avcil, NMOE’s executive director; Bob Perls, founder and president of NMOE and a former NM State Representative; and Perry Radford, NMOE’s volunteer and communications coordinator.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sila Avcil: I started working for another nonprofit [after completing my Master’s], which was focused on international relations, and that's how I met Bob because he is the Honorary Consul for Germany in New Mexico. We were sharing an office space, and one day, he said, “Hey, I'm also running this nonprofit, and I'm looking for an executive director. Do you know anyone?” And I was like, “I know someone, and it's me." And so that's how I ended up here! I just fell in love [with this work], and it has become one of my passions. And I'm very committed to open primaries for New Mexico because, as you may know, we are one of nine states left with closed primaries. The independent population is increasing, so I think it's a very important time for our democracy and our state to be a leader in passing such bills through the legislature.
Perry Radford: My story and my involvement come from being one of those 2008 college graduates who graduated into a recession, had really unstable work, and fell into political organizing and political volunteerism. And what I experienced during that time was that it was so easy to get involved, build community, and make a difference. My lesson across these years has been that engagement matters, and anyone can engage and make a difference if we just step up and try. That's part of why I'm here today, and I’m excited to help bring New Mexicans together, to have our voices heard, and to have more people have a seat at the table.
Bob Perls: I'm a former New Mexico state representative and former U.S. Diplomat with a private sector background, originally. What informed my interest in this work was a combination of being a state representative, having grown up in New Mexico, and then serving my country abroad as a foreign service officer with the Department of State. And a lot of what diplomacy is about is one-on-one meetings abroad with people who want the same thing Americans do: safe streets, a better life for their kids, a representative democracy, enough food, enough water. And, what you'll learn very quickly is not just that there's a lot of commonality but that America still is the beacon of democracy throughout the world.
I served in Germany, West Africa, Canada, Pakistan, and Washington, D.C. I spent thousands of hours on panels meeting with businessmen, students, leaders, and grassroots folks, discussing how America is still the beacon of democracy. But then I came back home, got together with friends and family and former political supporters, and realized that American democracy isn't working the way it's supposed to. And so, even though I very much enjoyed representing my country abroad and recognizing that we're still the beacon in many people's eyes, I realized there's so much work at home so that we really can fulfill our global promise of truly representing grassroots America, creating a government that has a mandate to govern, allowing all people left, right, and center to be truly represented in governance. Unfortunately, after being gone for six years and coming back, it's pretty clear that it's not working the way it should and as well as it should.
Bob: I've always been pretty good at listening to a diverse audience, pulling ideas together, and coming up with a solution. That's a lot of what politics is, and that's why it was so much fun to be a state
representative, listening to many different voices and then executing those diverse visions. I didn't see anybody else [bringing in these diverse voices], so I wanted to create a truly transpartisan organization. And so I reached out to Republican friends, Democrat friends, Greens, Libertarians, and Independents, and there was a lot of interest because even back in 2015-2016, during the founding times, there was already a strong sense of the hyper-polarization in politics in our capital in Santa Fe — certainly in Washington, D.C.
It became very clear that the 2016 presidential election activated a lot of folks. I was collecting signatures at a Bernie Sanders town hall with 500 to 600 people standing in line, and I did the same at a Donald Trump town hall. And man, 80 percent of the complaints from the Sanders and the Trump supporters were the same: “The middle class is falling apart. Nobody's listening to us. We feel disenfranchised. There aren't the same opportunities there were for our kids.” And so it continued to solidify that something had to change and that there was consensus to change.
Sila: The Senate bill was very, very successful. It had very strong bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats, and there were a lot of good conversations around the bill. It passed with bipartisan support [27-10], and it moved back into the House, where it was tabled.
Bob: So, a lot of it's just simply talking about fairness, what's fair, what's equitable. It's not about outcomes being more conservative or more liberal, centrist, or watered down. It's about fairness. And then citing that [more than half] of millennials are now registering as independents, 50 percent of veterans are now registering as independents. We are one of the few minority-majority states and communities of color register in much greater degrees as independents. So, it's talking about transpartisan issues of fairness.
Sila: Yeah, I think the biggest concerns and questions we get from incumbents especially is, "Oh, now I have to raise more money to talk to more voters!” Which is fair, but that is what democracy is. We are trying to empower nearly 325,000 independent and minor party voters in the state to participate in elections they are paying for. That is one of our biggest arguments. And if they're paying for these elections, you should be able to pay a little more for your campaign if you want to be reelected. And again, going back to what Bob was saying, instead of being elected by a very small percentage of your district, it would be more empowering for a candidate to have more votes and more representation of people when elected. And so we try to promote that it's a transpartisan, bipartisan, nonpartisan issue. We try to make it clear to the incumbents who will be running again, that this is more of a democracy issue than anything else.
Sila: Whenever I talk to normal people on the street, and I tell them about our bill, they say, “That makes so much sense. I didn't know we didn't have that!” [So] there is a lot of public traction. We're definitely building a lot more local coalitions and partnerships with organizations because of the success of our bill.
Bob: [We’re also finding that] so much of our mission has to be education. There's lots of polling to show that at least 70 or 80 percent of New Mexicans support semi-open primaries, allowing independents to vote in partisan primaries. But we need to educate legislators… so that's also our mission.
Perry: I think a lot of people are disinclined to participate because they think the barrier is higher to entry than it actually is. But I also think a lot of people are disenchanted and refusing to participate because it seems as if they're not wanted, and their voice isn't being heard. I've already talked about this issue with fellow people that I've met at other meetups and other situations, neighbors, I'm getting to know regardless of where people fall on the political spectrum, I think people are feeling so on the edges of our political system. I think what's happening with the upcoming presidential race is that a lot of people are not excited about either one of our candidates, and that's intensifying the feeling that there is no place for me here. So, I think something like [the work of New Mexico Open Elections] creates a sense of optimism of: We can change the status quo, we can get more people involved, there is space for me, there isn't just space for people who are the most polarized.
And so hope is something that we shouldn't underestimate. I don't think people want to feel like there's nothing they can do, or the obstacles are huge. So I think that sense of optimism, you might say that's a soft thing to be trying to cultivate, but I think that will lead to a lot more community involvement and empowerment. People feel like I can get together with my neighbors and make a difference.
If you want to learn more about NMOE visit their website at https://www.nmopenelections.org/.