Americans need more inspiration at ballot box

Lines of voters once again stood patiently, waiting to vote in the Afghanistan runoff election over the weekend.

At risk to life and limb, the citizens of that war-torn country demonstrated that they understand the importance of voting.
Such regard for the ballot is something Americans have lost.

A primary election during a non-presidential year cannot compare to the first free election ever, such as is happening in Afghanistan, but even with the difference in scale, it is unsettling to see how little regard Americans have for the ballot.

Just look at turnout numbers in New Mexico’s recent primary. Unofficial numbers from the Secretary of State’s Office showed only about 20 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans voted earlier this month, down from 28 percent in 2010. The number of votes cast went down, too, from 201,498 votes this year compared to 258,614 in 2010. That’s a drop of about 22 percent.

Turnout ranged from 13 percent in Dona Ana County to 52 percent in Guadalupe County. Why so high in Guadalupe County? Contested races that got voters excited, including battles for commissioner, sheriff and judges. The same was true in Mora County, where two close commissioner races brought out 48.25 percent of the vote (showing how much voting matters, the loss of incumbent John Olivas in Mora County could mean changes to the first-in-the-nation anti-fracking ordinance.)

It’s clear that political parties — with their stranglehold on primaries — aren’t doing enough to encourage not only voting, but also involvement in the entire electoral process. We need more people to step up and run for office. We need stronger debates on issues and problems. We need both Republicans and Democrats, so long as the current system exists, to participate as candidates — after all, in most Northern New Mexico races, the winner of the Democratic primary effectively wins. That means office holders, even ones with a wide margin, don’t have any mandate because so few voters selected them.

The best solution would be a revision of the primary system — we would support primaries where all registered voters take part, with the top two candidates going on until November.

We also would support discussions to further shake up the election system. Louisiana has one election in November with a runoff a few weeks later if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote. Rather than make candidates run nearly year-round, the energy is concentrated in a winner-take-all fashion. At least in Louisiana, more citizens are choosing the winners.

What we are doing is not working. Even without major changes, let’s get more people out — not just to vote, but to run for office so we can generate excitement and turnout.

— The Santa Fe New Mexican