New Mexico Democrats aim to expand right to vote, and make voting easier

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Across the country, “our whole democratic system is under attack.”

So said New Mexico’s Senate Majority leader, Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday as he presented Senate Bill 8, now poised to pass the Senate having cleared three of that chamber’s committees with Democratic but no Republican support. The effort comes in an election year in which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is running for re-election and all seats in the state House of Representatives are up. 

The legislation would allow people who’ve committed a felony to vote before completing their probation or parole. It would ensure ballot access on tribal land, make it easier for New Mexicans to stay registered, and cast a ballot too.

According to Wirth, the bill responds to frustration over the failure of the U.S. Senate in January to pass a voting rights measure called the Freedom to Vote Act. The federal legislation would have expanded voting rights and prohibited gerrymandering of political districts to favor one political party over another. 

Lessons were learned during the “COVID voting cycle of 2020” about voter disenfranchisement, and the value of mail by vote, the Senate majority leader said. “We saw the use of mail ballots in a way we’d never seen before.”

Almost half (46%) of Americans who voted during the 2020 pandemic used mail ballots, the Pew Research Center found. In the presidential election, more Democrats voted by mail than Republicans.

This bill would remove steps required each election cycle just to get an absentee ballot. It would create a permanent absentee ballot list that people could voluntarily join, just once, and from then on receive their ballot in the mail automatically for each election. 

And every county would have to make available at least two monitored ballot dropboxes. The Pew report said voters using mail ballots were just as likely to return their ballots to a dropbox as they were to return them by mail.

A free tracking system administered by the Secretary of State would show the status of a ballot en route to the voter and then back to the county clerk. 

People who’ve committed a felony and still on probation or parole could vote if they wanted. Currently, they must wait until they’ve completed probation or parole, which could take years.  The changes mean thousands of previously disenfranchised New Mexicans could vote this year if the legislation clears the House of Representatives with that provision left intact. 

There were a little more than 15,000 New Mexicans on probation or parole in 2020, according to testimony the New Mexico Corrections Department gave to the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice committee in September of that year. 

Senate Bill 8 simply strikes the sections of statute that bar from voting someone serving out a deferred sentence or on parole for a felony and adds a prohibition on voting by incarcerated people.  If the legislation passes in its current form, the corrections department would have to provide incarcerated individuals nearing their release date an opportunity to register to vote. 

The bill also creates a Native American Voting Rights Act meant to ensure tribal communities have sufficient access to mail ballots or voting locations. In a previous committee hearing on SB8, Wirth said he, like others, was shocked to see Native voters disenfranchised due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

The legislation would give more say to New Mexico’s 23 tribes over voting on their lands. 

During the pandemic, while tribes closed their borders and public health practices called for tribal members to stay home as much as possible, some had to travel long distances to reach polling locations. The experience highlighted a range of ongoing obstacles to voting for tribal members.

New voting precinct boundaries on tribal land would have to conform with internal and external tribal political boundaries. County Clerks would be required to consider requests by tribes for voting locations or dropboxes and report the requests to county commissioners before they approve a county polling place plan. Once the county plan is adopted, voting locations on tribal land couldn’t be removed without written consent of the tribe. 

If a tribe requests an early voting polling site, county clerks would provide one on or near their land. If the county clerk denies a request for a ballot dropbox, a tribe could appeal to the Secretary of State who could then place one that is located and staffed by the tribe. 

Tribal members, who sometimes don’t live on U.S. Postal Service delivery routes, could register to vote using an official tribal government building as their mailing address.

And the new Act covers states of emergencies during an election, like the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. County clerks would be required to locate at least one early voting site on tribal land and on election day if tribal members are unable to leave their tribal lands because of a lockdown, as happened in 2020. The sites would not be available to every voter living in the county if the tribe decides to close its borders because of an emergency. 

All of these measures make voting easier. 

But by the time the bill arrived at the Senate Judiciary committee on Wednesday, its ambition had been whittled down, and was pared back even more then. 

The original bill allowed 16 and 17 year olds to vote in some elections. The effort to expand the vote to younger people was a lightning rod during committee hearings, drawing passionate public support from youth and organizations supporting them but sparking intense opposition from others. Lawmakers scaled back the youth voting expansion to simply allow 17-year olds to register to vote if they turn 18 before a general election.

Public schools would close on election days, but the original bill provided a state holiday for everyone on election day. County clerks spoke against the state holiday measure, saying it would cost them more money because they’d be forced to increase wages to holiday pay. 

Also struck was a provision for unregistered people to be automatically registered to vote when renewing or applying for a driver’s license. 

People in opposition said it wasn’t right to automatically register a person without their consent. Under the original bill, people would have received a notice in the mail allowing them to opt-out of registration, but if they didn’t respond to the letter would have been added to the voter rolls.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, stripped the automatic registration measure in a substitute bill adopted Wednesday, speaking forcefully about how the current process is a national model for how to make registering to vote easy for people. As it stands, people will continue to have an option to register to vote when applying for or renewing their driver’s license. 

Senate Bill 8 passed three committees in just over one week in the Senate, which is quick in legislative time. It’s now awaiting a floor vote, which will likely happen this weekend. That’ll give the House just a few days to pass the bill, but the speed with which it has moved in the Senate signals it’s a high priority for Democrats.

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