A polling location in Grants, N.M. in November 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)
Voting could be easier for hundreds of thousands of people in New Mexico if election-related legislation makes it a few more steps forward in the Roundhouse this session.
House Bill 4, otherwise known as Voting Rights Protections, would boost voting accessibility in the state, especially for Indigenous communities and formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies.
The legislation passed the House of Representatives last week. On Monday, it passed Senate Rules, its first committee on the Senate side. It heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee next.
“The right to vote is fundamental, and New Mexicans deserve to be able to exercise those rights fully and fairly, without any unnecessary burdens,” bill sponsor Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) said.
Lawmakers have been trying to push this legislation for a while. A similar proposal failed to pass last year because Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington) filibustered it at the end of the 2022 legislative session.
Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) said this time around, the bill has been amended so it’s less problematic, though she didn’t specify details.
“I just feel like this is going to put us on the map as one of the states that truly does care about ensuring the vote for everyone in our state,” she said.
New Mexico has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the nation. The state ranked 40th nationwide for the percentage of citizens that voted in the 2020 election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For the most recent 2022 General Election, only about half of registered voters actually cast ballots, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
Amanda López Askin, the Doña Ana County Clerk and supporter of the bill, said this legislation will help address those issues.
“As an election official, it has been truly discouraging to look across news and all of the roll-backs, basically, on voting rights and access in our country,” she said. “And I’m so grateful that New Mexico is working towards removing the barriers.”
The two Republican committee members present — Greg Baca (Belen) and Cliff Pirtle (Roswell) — both voted against the bill’s passage on Monday. Pirtle said he’s frustrated that this House bill is being heard in the Senate Rules Committee when there are still three weeks left in the session.
“I still have bills that haven’t had a hearing in this committee, and yet, you’re gonna take this thing and spike the football right in front of my face and pass such a partisan piece of legislation,” he said. “I think it’s just extremely disrespectful to the body.”
Making voting easier
Included in this bill is the Native Americans Voting Rights Act, which supporters say will lift barriers for Indigenous communities to vote.
Duhigg said some of the important changes included are ensuring precinct boundaries are aligned with tribal political boundaries, expanding early voting opportunities, letting voters put down official buildings as addresses and giving more resources to county clerks’ offices.
Teran Villa (Jemez) spoke on behalf of Jerome Lucero (Zia), vice chair of All Pueblo Council of Governors. He said this bill removes voting hurdles for tribal communities and “is consequential to the Pueblos.”
“There’s no reason Native people should have a higher barrier to requesting election resources,” he said.
There are also a few measures in the bill to make voting by mail easier for everyone.
Under this legislation, at least two drop boxes would be required in every county, and the state would create a permanent absentee ballot list so people don’t have to reapply for mail-in ballots every election cycle.
Hannah Burling is the president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico. She said that would help voters with disabilities, health issues and inflexible work schedules.
No voter should ever have to sit out an election because they did not have a safe and accessible option to cast their ballot.
– Hannah Burling, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico
Baca said he didn’t agree with some of these changes. He hinted that it could lead to voter fraud, which many of the public opposers also voiced concern about.
“It just opens it up to all kinds of nefarious activities,” he said.
However, research shows that election fraud is very rare. Some of the bill’s opposers said there are already a lot of integrity issues with elections, but election deniers often base their claims on unfounded information.
Baca said he also doesn’t see why people aren’t able to fill out a voter registration card for every election.
“I think it’s a good thing that somebody has to go through a little bit of effort to acquire the most prized right that we have in this country that, honestly, people have died for,” he said.
Duhigg pointed out that New Mexico ranks near the bottom of the nation for voter turnout, so clearly, she said, people are struggling to fill out voter registration cards. Baca argued low voter participation could be due to a number of other factors.
Expanding the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people
New Mexicans convicted of felonies who are still on parole aren’t allowed to vote. This legislation would nix that, allowing them to vote as soon as they’re released from correctional facilities.
For Adam Griego, who used to be incarcerated, that would mean having a say in the world around him.
He said that he participates in society through church involvement, is a professor at a community college and advocates with a nonprofit organization. He still can’t vote.
“Currently, I do not have a voice in the elections that impact my life and community,” Griego said. “We must acknowledge on a human level equality and promote a healthy society through civic engagement. I am a citizen of this country and my voice does matter.”
Republicans were not on board with that sentiment.
Baca said he doesn’t understand why people should be able to vote when they still owe a debt to society.
“We’re going to have people that still have an obligation to the state under their parole to be able to now vote even though they’re still under sentence,” he said.
Carla Sonntag, president of the New Mexico Business Coalition, echoed Baca’s statement. She said her organization supports voting rights for people with felonies who are not on parole.
“We think that they should be given the right to vote after they have completed their full sentence, and they request to vote,” Sonntag said.
This legislation would also automatically register New Mexicans applying for or renewing state IDs to vote.
The legislation provides an opt-out option by mail for anyone automatically registered to vote. Anyone registered is not required to actually cast a ballot.
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