Even though everything before the coronavirus now seems like a distant memory, it wasn’t long ago that half of the nation’s partisan voters were still tussling over who their presidential nominee would be. New Mexico was poised to play its usual meaningless role in that decision, because our presidential primary is held in June.
A bill in this year’s legislature proposed that we move New Mexico’s presidential primary to January. The bill (HB 350, Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque) went nowhere. That idea is worth another look.
I mention it now, before our primary election, because even though we’ve been distracted by a national emergency, the long primary season is still relatively fresh in our minds. We remember what it was like before the field narrowed.
Our primary is scheduled for Tuesday, June 2. There are several important contests including US Senator and members of Congress – good reasons to vote — but our presidential votes will be inconsequential by that time.
An early presidential primary gives voters a chance to set the direction of the process. And it forces the candidates to learn about the state, which may influence their future policy decisions.
This year, all the action has been on the Democratic side. Next election, it could be on the Republican side or both.
If Donald Trump is reelected, since the president is term-limited, in 2024 there will likely be large fields of candidates on both the Republican and Democratic sides. If presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected this year, then probably the large field in 2024 will be Republican only because Biden will be the uncontested nominee.
Starting last fall, Democrats seeking the nomination totalled 25, though not all were running at the same time. Several dropped out before others entered.
In 2016, the number of Republicans was almost as big – 17 candidates at the start, representing a wide range of abilities, backgrounds and viewpoints. In the early debates, candidates were divided into those regarded as more serious and what was disparagingly called the “kids’ table.”
In both of these fields, some candidates were United States senators or other current officeholders who would go back to their existing positions with greater knowledge of the states they spent the most time in. They all learned about Iowa and New Hampshire. Might it be helpful to us if future candidates learn more about New Mexico?
New Mexico has unique issues, including the border, federal lands, several military bases, a hub of space exploration, oil and gas and especially one interest group that has received little or no attention in any recent presidential primary: Native Americans, who have a complex and often difficult relationship with the federal government. If the candidates came to New Mexico, Native Americans would have a great opportunity to be noticed.
An early presidential primary would have to be held separately from the primary for state and local offices, which is quite reasonably held in June. That timing is fine. Some other states have similar procedures, with presidential primaries held separately.
I suggest that an early presidential primary should employ ranked choice voting, which allows voters to specify a second choice if their first choice is not the winner. This technique is a superior way to discover the real leanings of the voters. For example, this year, ranked choice in the early primaries would have shown that a majority of Democrats preferred moderates over progressives.
I also suggest that early voting for this event should just be a week or two, so that voters will not waste their votes on candidates who drop out.
An early primary would put New Mexico on the national map in a way that it’s never been before. In the next few years we’re going to need all the boost we can get.
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