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Strategic voting under a new system

Recently I changed my voter registration to what I have always been: an independent. I could do this because of a voting reform passed in 2020 that allows independents to vote in primaries. Many voters — 23 percent — don’t want to be associated with a party. Proponents of the reform said it would enable more citizens to vote in primaries. 

This has appeal in Grant County, because primaries are often the real elections. People like me have been registered as Democrats not because we feel like Democrats, but because that’s the only way to vote in primaries. But to some, that sounds like cheating. If we’re not really Democrats, we shouldn’t register as Democrats. 

The new system might give even greater opportunity for strategic voting. You might actually be a Democrat pretending to be an independent in order to vote dishonestly in the Republican primary — or vice versa. Did this kind of strategic voting happen in the June 7 primary? No one knows who voted for who or why, but there are ways to analyze trends and make educated guesses. But before we do that, let’s try out the new system. 

I was ready to become independent, so I went to nmvote.org and found my registration. I filled in my driver’s license, Social Security number and date of birth. After swearing I was me, I selected “No Party/Decline to Select/Independent.” 

It asked for my phone number and email so the County Clerk’s Office could confirm my change. I swore that my information was true, and submitted the application. No one from the Clerk’s Office called to check. They just changed the online record to show me as independent. 

If I want to vote in the primary, I must do so in person, so I can provide valid ID. I can then temporarily change my registration to a recognized party and vote. Later, I can change back to independent. 

Note that I can’t change from Democratic to Republican, or vice versa. I can only change my party if I have none. 

But if I were devious? We’ll get to that. 

People could do this for the first time on election day in the June 7 primary. Of the 261,912 New Mexico voters in the primary, 2,111 independents changed their affiliation at the polls. In Grant County, 151 independents changed their affiliation – 46 percent of them to Republican, and 53 percent to Democrat. 

So if you were independent, how would you have voted? In the June 7 Democratic primary, you had Karen Whitlock versus Rudy Martinez. In the Republican primary, you had Luis Terrazas versus nobody. 

There’s not much point in voting for the unopposed Terrazas. Your vote would count more in the Democratic primary. If you’re conservative, you might vote for Martinez, if you think he is more conservative. Or you might think that as a conservative Democrat, Martinez is more likely to beat your real favorite, Terrazas. If you think that your guy has a better chance against Whitlock, you might vote for her. You’ll feel foolish if she wins in the general election, but strategic voters take their chances. 

How could you tell whether devious citizens voted dishonestly? You could look at precinct records for the 2020 primary, which pitted Democrat Rudy Martinez against Republican Luis Terrazas in one district and Democrat Karen Whitlock against Republican Rebecca Dow in the other. The districts are different, but the precincts are the same. You could look for precincts that voted mostly Republican in 2020, but more Democratic in 2022. 

That might be evidence — but not proof — that strategic voting happened. That’s why I started this column. I suspected that conservatives had voted strategically for Whitlock, even though they wanted her to lose to Terrazas. If they tried that, it didn’t work. 

After studying the data, I decided that my suspicions were mostly wrong. I don’t have space to analyze this, but you can judge for yourself at bit.ly/GCVotingPatterns, where I have organized relevant voting data. 

There are things that look suspicious — look at Precinct 6 — but overall, I don’t think this reform changed the result. But it might in some future election. There are better systems that don’t tempt cheating. I like the system proposed during the last legislative session. In that system, all candidates from all parties run together in an open primary. The top four go to the general election, where voters get to list their favorite candidates in order of preference. If no one gets a majority, second choices are considered until one candidate is acceptable to the majority. Strategic voting is pointless in that system. But for now, we’re stuck with a system that allows and perhaps encourages strategic voting. Is this column educating people about the new system? Or is it showing them how to cheat?

Disclaimer:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to bruce@greensilverlinings.com.
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