Why progressives should welcome independents into Democratic primaries

First of all, can we acknowledge that there is significant disillusionment amongst the voting public with the partisanship and lack of compromise that has Congress virtually paralyzed at the moment? In a similar way, can we admit that the gerrymandering of congressional districts to the point where less than 10% of these same districts are considered "competitive" is largely to blame for the systemic edge that House Republicans will enjoy for the next decade? There is absolutely no incentive for these Republican incumbents to listen to the middle, concerned as they are about their unforgiving right-wing base.

That is a snapshot of our national political milieu, but how does this relate to the question of whether or not to open up our Democratic primary process to the increasing number of Independents on New Mexico's voting lists? I would contend that there are a whole range of electoral reform measures that merit implementation here in New Mexico—for instance the establishment of an independent redistricting commission to address the problem of gerrymandering, the institution of campaign finance reform, the passage of same-day voter registration, and of course the opening up of our primaries to interested and engaged Independent and Decline To State (DTS) voters. As any local campaign operative or legislative candidate can tell you, first time voters tend to register as either Independents or Decline To State, especially amongst those under 30. In Colorado, for example, there are more registered Independents & DTS's than either Democrats or Republicans.

Why is this the case? As a state legislator who has had direct contact with this classic swing voter universe for over three different election cycles, including presidential election years as well as the in between "off years" where turnout inevitably goes down, I have found that people are frankly disillusioned with the political process, on the state and local levels as well. One obvious result of this can be decreased voter participation.  As legislators we are often seen as being insulated from our constituents, susceptible to special interests, and way too polarized to accomplish meaningful compromise. Happily these same voters have not given up entirely on our democratic process: they are on my door-to-door walk list because they are regular voters or have emailed me about a specific legislative concern.  They are very much engaged, following our activity in Santa Fe and well-versed in the nuances of our state legislative process.

I think that those of us active in our state Democratic Party have to acknowledge the validity in an Independent voter's choice to refuse partisan affiliation. And at the same time, we should have enough confidence in our message and the stark contrast that we present to our Republican counterparts to risk such a voter's participation in our primary process. Honestly, in so many ways this 15% or so of our state's registered voters hold an energy for us that we can only benefit from in the long run. And they are often the key to victory or defeat in the general election. For as much as I have personally worked this sliver of the electorate, they are an elusive lot and can be hard to pin down. They do not lean in any one particular partisan direction. In my former House district, I won them in 2008, and I lost them in 2010.

My argument would be that the more participation that we have in our state and local elections, the better off we are as a community, however the elections turn out. In a pragmatic partisan context, do we not send a clear message to this vital subset of the electorate that they are more than welcome in our fold, that we trust their judgment and welcome their input?

To me, in this scenario, everybody wins.

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Sen. Bill O'Neill's photo

Sen. Bill O'Neill

Public service has been at the center of Bill O'Neill's life, much of it involved with the criminal justice system. 20 years ago he helped found the highly regarded Dismas House, where parolees rebuild their lives in a positive, law-abiding manner. He served as Executive Director of the New Mexico Juvenile Parole Board, and is currently the Development Director for the PEP Program, a mentoring program for high-risk juvenile offenders run through the New Mexico Conference Of Churches. A graduate of Cornell University, Bill has lived in Albuquerque since 1990.

He was elected to the House of Representatives in 2008. In his first term of office, Representative O'Neill sponsored -- and in many cases, passed -- a wide range of bills in the areas of public safety, ethics reform, and protecting our most vulnerable citizens.

In the current 2013 legislative session, Senator O'Neill has sponsored a range of bills in the area of ethics reform, public safety, and tax policy.

For a list of bills that Senator O'Neill is sponsoring, or to contact him about an issue that is important to you, do not hesitate to e mail him at oneillsd13@billoneillfornm.com, or to call him on his personal cell (450-9263).

Contact Sen. Bill O'Neill

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