Secretary of State talks details of NM’s Voting Rights Act
Proposal is meant to expand voting access. Does it go far enough?
Clerk’s Annex polling location in Albuquerque 10 minutes before the polls closed in November 2021. Between 50 and 70 people were in line, with more arriving. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)
A slate of reforms backed by the state’s top elections official would make sure people convicted of felonies can re-register to vote and extend voting rights to 16-year-olds — within limits.
The goal of the bill is to lower barriers and increase access to the polls, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told reporters Wednesday. If the Legislature passes the bill, Toulouse Oliver said, it could boost voter registration and turnout.
Here’s what it would do:
The bill is also meant to improve the registration experience, Toulouse Oliver said. It would automatically register a voter when they engage with their driver’s licensing office, she said, and then give them the choice to opt out.
That’s how it works in 22 other states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The youth vote
Voters aged 18 to 29 made up a larger proportion of voters in 2020 (13%) than they did in 2018 (10%), according to a detailed report about the last presidential election in New Mexico that was also released on Wednesday.
“We see around the country a lot of activism coming out of those high school-aged kids who are dealing with very real decisions that school boards in particular are making that affect their daily lives,” Toulouse Oliver said.
That includes masking, vaccines, gun violence in schools, and the ability for LGBTQ children to feel safe and comfortable at school, she said.
The bill only extends voting rights to 16-year-olds in municipal and school board elections, said Alex Curtas, the secretary of state’s spokesperson. It would not allow them to vote for governor. He said he wasn’t sure why the legislation does not extend voting rights for teens to statewide elections.
The Voting Rights Act is also supposed to make it easier for formerly incarcerated people to participate in elections. New Mexico law already allows restoration of voting rights for people convicted of felonies who complete their sentences, but it does not always happen.
“The problem is it doesn’t work that way in practice, and the technology isn’t there, and a lot of people are being prohibited from being able to register and cast their ballot that should otherwise have the right to,” Toulouse Oliver said. “So this really clarifies that.”
When people are about to get processed out of prison, the Motor Vehicle Division is on-hand to restore their driver’s licenses, she said. With this reform, they would also register to vote at the same time.
If the person doesn’t have or want a driver’s license, they could still register to vote using a state ID or their full Social Security number, according to the bill’s text.
The bill would require prisons to give people the opportunity to register to vote or update their registration, either through a transaction with the MVD or an online portal hosted by the Secretary of State’s Office, Curtas said.
If that portal is not made available, the prison officials would have to make a paper form available, according to the bill’s text.
Selinda Guerrero, an organizer with People’s Budget New Mexico, told reporters on Jan. 17 that the group supports the bill and considers it a step toward minimizing felony disenfranchisement. However, it doesn’t go far enough, she said.
A previous proposal would have restored voting rights to all people convicted of felonies, including those still in prison — not just people who get out and complete their sentences.
“We would still like to see it go all the way, of the original bill that was introduced in 2019, where there is no suppression of votes,” Guerrero said.
At the time, voting rights for all confined citizens was one of the 10 demands made by prisoners inside Cibola County Correctional Center and the Lea County Correctional Facility as part of a nationwide prison strike in August and September of 2018.
Election drop boxes
2021 was supposed to be the first year in New Mexico when there would be at least two ballot drop boxes — more depending on population — permanently bolted to the ground in every county. But nearly half of all counties in New Mexico did not have enough of the boxes, and most of those counties also didn’t have permission to skip providing them, KUNM found.
A lack of ballot drop boxes adds another barrier to Native voting access
Even so, the boxes that were out there appear to have helped. Researchers asked voters how long they had to wait to drop off their vote-by-mail ballots in 2020. About nine in 10 voters indicated no wait time, while about one in 10 voters said they had to wait less than 10 minutes.
“Drop boxes appear to be very efficient,” the report states. They found that 36% of voters dropped off their vote-by-mail ballots either at an early vote location, a ballot drop box or a county clerk office.
Under the proposed Voting Rights Act, counties would have to provide only one ballot drop box at minimum — more depending on how many alternate voting locations there are in the county. If the bill becomes law, it will override the previous plan.
The New Mexico Voting Rights Act would also:
- Designate Election Day as a state holiday
- Create a permanent absentee voter list that would allow people to automatically receive ballots in the mail for each election without having to ask
- Allow people to register to vote without a driver’s license by using their full social security number
- Expand the timeline for Indigenous nations, Tribes and Pueblos to ask for alternative voting locations
- Allow candidate nominating petition signatures to be securely submitted electronically
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