Can voting rights and elections bills race through the rest of the session?
Public commenters short-changed on time to make their voices heard during a legislative hearing
The Clerk’s Annex in Albuquerque 10 minutes before the polls would close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Between 50 and 70 people were still in line, with more arriving. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)
The effort to expand voter protections in New Mexico has been amended and now sits in the Senate Rules Committee where it is facing a ticking clock counting down the 30-day legislative session.
Changes to Senate Bill 8 do not veer from the original intent to increase voter participation in part by making it easier to register to vote, boost voter access to absentee ballots and grant 16-year-olds the right to vote in local elections.
Much of the new language in the bill is drafted to include more specific details about how to meet the changes to the election code within the 26 sections of the proposal. The amended bill also addresses concerns about overlapping language it shares with Senate Bill 6. That’s another effort to enact security changes to the election code, but it doesn’t expand voting options like the proposals in SB 8.
“I think it’s fair to say our democracy is under attack,” said Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe), a sponsor of the bill. “Having uniform laws across the 50 states is really critical as we discuss voting, as we discuss access.”
While those discussions at the federal level are ongoing, the states are left to take up the mantle.
– NM Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe)
The two bills are technically not competing, but they do have some stark differences and are moving at a much different pace through the Legislature.
For instance, SB 8 offers easier voter registration for convicted felons who have completed their conditions of release. It creates systems for simple registration for people who visit the Motor Vehicle Department and resources through the Human Services Department. The measure also allows people to request absentee ballots one time for every election, instead of at the beginning of each election. The expansion of voting to 16-year-olds in local elections is another thing that is not included in SB 6.
Now SB 6 is expansive in terms of elections protections, and if passed, it will make several security and administration changes that were rolled out during the 2020 general election permanent law.
Bipartisan support is another significant difference between the two proposals. SB 6 is sponsored by both parties, which is in part why it was moved quickly through committee and onto the Senate floor where debate started Wednesday night.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) is one of the sponsors of the elections protections proposal and also the chair of the committee where the voting rights bill sits. He said Republicans oppose the proposal “from section one through the last page.”
Debate on the bipartisan proposal didn’t make it far on the Senate floor Wednesday. Legislators brought concerns about clarifying language to protect voter information. The bill will be amended and brought back to the floor to finish debate, possibly Thursday.
Despite the setback, advocates for the voting rights package are concerned their bill is still in committee, rolled over to be heard on Friday, even though it was initially scheduled to be discussed first thing this week. And if it passes, it must go through the Senate Finance Committee before it makes the floor, and then run the same process in the House.
“We got plenty of time to get it through,” Ive-Soto said. “It’ll be tight, but we got plenty of time to do it. I think that there’s a real commitment from the majority, and both the Senate and in the House, to see both of these options.”
Attendees and lawmakers expressed concerns about the public comment portion of the hearing, which Ivey-Soto limited. Despite having more than 35 people signed up, only two spoke, one in support and one in opposition. Ivey-Soto did a quick straw poll of the room and Zoom to gauge supporters. Thirty-one people stood in support, five opposed via Zoom.
We will continue fighting. We are not giving up. We are not.
– Maria Coronado, American Civil Liberties Union
Ivey-Soto said he made the decision to limit comment, because the committee spent several hours vetting the confirmation of Public Education Department Secretary Kurt Steinhaus before it got to the voter protection bill.
“Most of those folks online and in the room have been reaching out to a bunch of us and talking to people,” he said. “What they would have had to say — while it might have been good for the sake of public comment, and there’s a value to that — the fact is that they’ve already said it to us.”
Whether due to time management or familiarity with the arguments, Ivey-Soto’s decision still restricted New Mexico voices supporting voter protections and rights expansions, said Austin Weahkee with NM Native Vote.
Weahkee (Cochiti, Zuni, Diné) said chairman for the All Pueblo Council of Governors Mark Mitchell (Tesuque) and his staff were on the phone since 9 a.m. waiting to give his comment in support of the measure.
“For me, it shows that (Ivey-Soto) is not interested in transparency,” Weahkee said. “He is not interested in hearing voices. And he’s especially not interested in hearing tribal voices.”
It's not his job to assume what people are going to say. It's not his job to try and guess. He's not the great prognosticator. He doesn't get to know what we're thinking. That's a gross overreach.
– Austin Weahkee, NM Native Vote
Maria Coronado, an immigrant rights organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union, drove up from Las Cruces only to be denied her right to speak during public comment. Although she was only allowed to weigh in by standing up during the straw poll, she said did leave satisfied with the outcome of the meeting, because her intent to represent immigrants was paramount.
Coronado said after she received her U.S. citizenship, she voted in her first election in 2012, and she was going to represent those voices in Santa Fe, rain or shine — and ultimately snow.
“We need to do what we need to do. If it’s a snow day, we need to be here,” she said. “Our power is our vote. It’s in our voice. So that’s why I’m here, not only for me, for everyone that feels that we are not treated the same.”
Before she left to beat the snow on Interstate 25 back to Las Cruces, Coronado had a message to legislators if the bill dies either by vote or because time ran out: “We will continue fighting. We are not giving up. We are not.”
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