The New Mexico Voting Rights Act: What’s in and what’s out

Sponsors and supporters say legislation is a long time coming

By: - January 27, 2023 4:05 am
Three people in formal attire sit at a large, round table, with the camera focused on a bespectacled man in the center.

New Mexico House Speaker Javier Martínez (center) will carry the New Mexico Voting Rights Act in the House of Representatives. To his right is Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and to his left, House Minority Leader Ryan Lane. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

A sprawling proposal to expand and return the right to vote to more New Mexicans could finally become a reality this session after years of legislative and community effort, according to Democratic leaders, pro-democracy organizers and the state’s top election official.

In the short 30-day session in 2022, opponents argued they were not given enough time to evaluate the bill, and one of them ran out the clock before it could go to a vote in the Senate

The measure would help Indigenous people, who face obstacles at every turn through the political process, said NM Native Vote Executive Director Ahtza Dawn Chavez (Diné / Kewa). New Mexico has been a state since 1912, she pointed out, but Native communities were not granted the right to vote until 1948.

“This bill will increase voter participation and access across the state by addressing many of these barriers with provisions for Native American voters,” she said, “while also protecting expanding the right to vote for every eligible New Mexico voter.”

Chavez said the legislation would call on county clerks to evaluate the distance Native people have to travel to reach the polls. It would also require language translation during early voting, allow the use of tribal buildings for people without mailing addresses, and include tribal input on voting precinct boundaries.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she thinks the new version of the bill is better than last year’s “because it has really been spearheaded and brought to life by the advocacy community.”

Toulouse Oliver said three critical elements she supports are automatically restoring the right to vote to formerly incarcerated New Mexicans, protecting access to the ballot for Native communities, and expanding options for vote-by-mail.

Former Sen. Richard Romero originally carried legislation to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies in 2000, said House Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey, a co-sponsor of the bill.

As a result, in New Mexico, people can re-register to vote once they’ve completed their probation and parole. But, Chasey said, “it’s not working.”

“We have thousands and thousands of people who are not getting that done, and this will make it more automatic,” she said.

Justin Allen, inclusive democracy organizer with Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, said every citizen should have a voice and the ability to participate in fair and safe elections, regardless of social or economic status. Civic engagement was how he was able to break the cycle of recidivism for himself, he said.

“Participation in the functions of society means that I no longer resort to self-harm, substance abuse and isolation that contributes to bad choices and incarceration,” Allen said. “Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ Participating in democracy means that I am no longer limited to only participating in protests or acts of civil disobedience.”

Camille Ward, spokesperson for House Democrats, said Tuesday she expected the legislation to be introduced this week. It had not yet been filed on Thursday evening.

Ward said in a news release later on Tuesday that the bill will also include enhancements to voter registration systems and voter data privacy, create a permanent absentee voter list allowing people to automatically receive ballots in the mail for each election without having to ask, and a proposed state holiday on Election Day.

The bill does not address ballot drop boxes, said Alissa Barnes, executive director at ProgessNow New Mexico, nor does it include a provision allowing people under the age of 18 to vote in school board elections. These provisions were included in last year’s version.

“I do believe that there was conversation about other legislation … that will address that as well,” Barnes said.

Toulouse Oliver said she will offer technical assistance to the bills sponsors, House Speaker Javier Martínez and Sen. Katy Duhigg, “to make sure that this legislation is — as it goes through the process — done in a way that makes sense for New Mexico election administrators and can be successfully accomplished.”

Austin Weahkee (Cochiti / Zuni / Navajo) is the Indigenous justice policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. He said there’s a collective understanding of how important voting rights are to making everything work at the Roundhouse and ensuring the election of strong champions on both sides of the aisle.

“We have the opportunity to make sure that everybody has an equitable chance and an equitable access to their vote,” Weahkee said, “to make sure that we’re eliminating outdated provisions in our law and to make sure that our elections can run effectively.”

As other states are rolling back voting rights and restricting access to the ballot box, New Mexico will continue to remove unnecessary barriers so all eligible voters can make their voices heard, Martínez said.

As of Thursday afternoon, he had not formally introduced it, according to his profile on the Legislature’s website.

“Our government works better when all people, no matter their walk of life, have a voice in who represents them,” Martínez said. “Diversity of all types — racial, ethnic, gender, cognitive — leads to better policy results for all.”

Martínez said one of his top priorities as the new leader of the House of Representatives will be “to open up that access to the ballot box.”

“People deserve the right to pick and choose who leads them,” he said. “Under my speakership, whether it lasts two years or goes far into the future, you can rest assured that we will protect people’s voting rights.”

Chasey said it is a game-changing piece of legislation and sends a clear message that the sponsors want the government to better reflect the will of its people.

“There’s simply too much at stake for our state — for our country — from reproductive rights to climate change to social justice, and to our economy, to allow only a portion of our citizens to have a vote,” Chasey said. “We’ve been fighting for this legislation a long time, and we want to make it a reality.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.