People incarcerated in the Cook County jail check in prior to casting their ballots at a polling place set up for early voting on Oct. 17, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. It was the first time that pretrial detainees in the jail had the opportunity to vote early in a general election. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images)
The New Mexico prison system took 18 years of Kelly Garcia’s life.
Along with all the other inhumane conditions on the inside, Garcia includes the fact that people in prison here cannot vote in elections.
“My voice was muted for so many years,” she said. “I couldn’t vote at that time.”
When she was still behind the walls, she would use the prison telephone to convince her friends, parents and siblings on the outside to vote.
You’re weird, she said they would tell her, asking: Why are you all into politics when you’re in there?
“It’s because these people are the ones that are affecting me and you,” Garcia recalled saying.
A report released Tuesday shows that thousands of New Mexicans are still being silenced by state law, which doesn’t allow people convicted of a felony to vote if they are out on parole or probation, or incarcerated past their release dates. And the state’s top election official will not commit to supporting extending the right to vote beyond the prison gates.
Some people with felony convictions can vote in New Mexico
People who’ve left jail or prison after their sentence is up — and who’ve completed their probation and parole — can re-register to vote in New Mexico, though this is widely misunderstood and often isn’t made clear during the process.
Researchers at The Sentencing Project found that 17,572 New Mexicans will be barred from voting in the midterm elections because of a past felony conviction. For context, if all of those people lived in one place, it would be the 10th most populous town in New Mexico.
The researchers found 6,262 people in New Mexico who are incarcerated for a felony conviction in a prison or jail and are ineligible to vote, and another 11,311 who are ineligible to vote because they are on felony probation or parole. They reached these estimates using census data and their own modeling of prison releases and recidivism in every state in the U.S.
“It’s awful. It’s inhumane to not give people a voice,” Garcia said. “That’s another way of keeping people oppressed.”
Other states have found ways to restore voting rights for previously incarcerated individuals. New Mexico should follow suit.
– Cathryn McGill, New Mexico Black Leadership Council
Other advocates and the new research support her conclusion.
Black, Brown and Indigenous people are incarcerated at higher rates and therefore losing their right to vote more often, said Cathryn McGill, executive director and co-founder of New Mexico Black Leadership Council.
The Sentencing Project found that Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately impacted by disenfranchisement, in New Mexico and around the country.
A little over 1,000 — or 5.7% — of those disenfranchised in New Mexico are Black in a state that is 2.7% Black.
Nearly 10,000 — or 56.6% — of those disenfranchised are Hispanic in a state that is 50.1% Hispanic.
This equates to roughly 3% of the voting eligible Black population and 2% of the voting eligible Hispanic population being ineligible to vote in New Mexico during the midterm elections.
“It is disheartening that once again, New Mexico finds itself in the minority and on the wrong side of equity,” McGill said. “While we never condone violence and criminal activity, once an individual has completed their sentencing, rights should be restored. Other states have found ways to restore voting rights for previously incarcerated individuals. New Mexico should follow suit.”
What is an ‘inalienable’ right?
A high-profile package in the most recent New Mexico legislative session known as the Voting Rights Act would have made it easier for formerly incarcerated people to participate in elections. It reached the state Senate but died thanks in part to a filibuster by a Republican lawmaker.
New Mexico law already allows restoration of voting rights for people convicted of felonies who complete their sentences, but it does not always happen.
When people are about to get processed out of prison, the state Motor Vehicle Division is on-hand to restore their driver’s licenses, and the bill would have required state officials to also register people to vote at the same time.
The bill would have required prison officials to give people the opportunity to register to vote or update their registration, either through a transaction with MVD or an online portal hosted by the Secretary of State’s Office.
As a member of Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, Garcia wrote part of an earlier proposal in 2019 that 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.
That bill would have brought New Mexico’s voting rights laws in line with Maine, Vermont, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Lawmakers watered it down and eventually killed it.
Every single person in the world deserves a voice.
– Kelly Garcia, Organizers in the Land of Enchantment
Maggie Toulouse Oliver is running for reelection as New Mexico Secretary of State. In a written statement Wednesday, her campaign spokesperson said she supports automatically restoring voting rights for people who have completed their probation and parole, and those convicted of felonies but who have completed their time in prison.
However, Toulouse Oliver’s campaign said she does not support legislation that would restore voting rights to all people convicted of felonies, including those still in prison.
“Not at this time, but she is open to productive conversations on the matter going forward,” spokesperson Dylan McArthur wrote.
As of Wednesday afternoon, campaign spokespeople for Republican candidate Audrey Trujillo and Libertarian candidate Mayna Erika Myers had not responded to requests for comment.
“It should be a nonpartisan issue to say that people have inalienable rights,” McGill said. “We have to figure out what our definition of that is in New Mexico, as others in other states have figured out. What does ‘inalienable’ mean to us?”
It’s only fair
If lawmakers would allow people with felony convictions to vote, Garcia said she believes the conversation and politics about and inside prisons would change, and perhaps politicians would care about what happens to people on the inside.
Some of them have a seat because part of the population in their district is people held in prisons within the district boundaries, Garcia said.
New Mexico In Depth found that counting imprisoned people as residents of the places they are incarcerated, a practice called “prison gerrymandering,” results in an unfair transfer of political power away from those imprisoned peoples’ home communities.
It’s only fair to let everyone vote, Garcia said.
“If they’re counting their heads in this Census, now why not let them vote?” she said.
When Garcia left the state women’s prison in Grants in 2012, she told herself that if that system is the last thing she changes in life, that’s what she will do, she said. After regaining her freedom, the first election Garcia participated in was in 2014. She said it felt like a relief.
“It was exciting because I finally got to participate,” she said.
The fight won’t be over until everybody gets a voice, Garcia said.
“Every single person in New Mexico deserves a voice,” she said. “Every single person in the world deserves a voice.”
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