Dems push bills aimed at making voting easier

January 26, 2019

Fresh off a midterm election that saw unusually high turnout for a midterm, New Mexico lawmakers are working on multiple pieces of legislation that proponents say would make it easier to register to vote and to cast a ballot.

Democrats in the state House of Representatives are pushing ahead with bills that would automatically register voters when they get a driver’s license and allow voters to sign up on the day of an election.

Backers argue the measures would boost participation in elections. But critics say such laws could open up opportunities for voter fraud, and some election administrators say they do not have the equipment or staff for some of the proposed changes.

Either way, as some states have moved in recent years to tighten restrictions on voting, New Mexico appears poised to head in a different direction.

“They are in the position to make New Mexico one of the most voter-friendly states in the country,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said Friday.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, has thrown her support behind House Bill 84, which would automatically register qualified voters when they obtain a driver’s license.

New Mexico is already a so-called motor-voter state, where drivers have the option of registering to vote when they go to a licensing office.

This bill would flip that process around, giving motorists the choice of opting out.

The Secretary of State’s Office said in an analysis of the bill that the measure would boost voter registration by as much as 30 percent, or 385,000 voters.

If it adopted automatic voter registration, New Mexico would join 15 other states, a mix of red and blue, as well as the District of Columbia.

Another measure, HB 86, would allow voters to registers at a polling place during early voting or on Election Day.

Voter registration currently ends 28 days before an election.

Toulouse Oliver told a House committee Friday that the 28-day cutoff for voter registration is arbitrary. It might have made sense when county clerks were dealing with paper voter rolls, but the state’s systems are very different today and can handle same-day registration, she argued.

Plenty of voters show up on Election Day to cast a ballot but have not registered, she said.

And proponents argue it would make voting all the more convenient, particularly for younger people.

“It’s the direction our new voter base is asking for,” said Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, a Democrat from Albuquerque and co-sponsor of the bill.

The New Mexican found that while younger voters cast ballots in larger numbers than usual last year, older voters were still overrepresented, with people older than 50 amounting to 63 percent of the voters who participated in the 2018 general election. Advocates for engaging more young people in the electoral process have said same-day registration is one method for boosting turnout among relatively youthful voters.

But the state’s association of county clerks has come out against the proposal, raising concerns that election administrators might not be able to handle an influx of registrations and pointing out that some are already short-staffed.

Lea County Clerk Keith Manes pointed out that not all polling locations have internet access to reach the statewide voter database and that the cost of new equipment could prove substantial for some communities.

“Not to mention the potential for fraud,” he wrote in an email.

HB 86 would require voters who register on the day of an election to show some sort of identification verifying their address.

But Republicans have argued that opposition of county clerks is cause for concern.

More broadly, GOP lawmakers have raised concerns that neither measure provides for adequate verification of whether a voter is qualified to register or not.

“It seems there’s a potential for more nonqualified electors to then be in the system, and there need to be some checks and balances on the other side,” Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, told the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.

When it comes to getting a driver’s license, the Secretary of State’s Office says voters already have to present documents showing whether they are a citizen or attest under penalty of perjury that they are a citizen. Either way, the process requires more documentation than filling out a voter registration card.

And the Secretary of State’s Office contends that reducing the number of paper registration forms it receives would cut down on data entry and typographical errors in the voter rolls.

Still, all of this is unlikely to assuage the long-running concerns of Republicans who question whether the state has made it too easy to commit voter fraud.

The House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted along party lines Friday to advance the automatic voter registration bill. It goes next to the House Judiciary Committee.

The elections committee is expected to vote in the coming days on the same-day voter registration bill.

Democrats want changes to felon voting bill

A House committee on Friday voted along party lines to advance a bill that would end the practice of suspending felons’ voting rights, opening the way for prison inmates to cast ballots from behind bars, critics argued.

But at least one Democrat said he will not vote for the bill unless lawmakers change it in another committee.

“What this bill does is that anybody in jail, out of jail at any time can vote. That’s not a bill I can support,” said Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales.

New Mexico law allows felons to vote once they have completed their sentences.

House Bill 57, sponsored by Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, would ensure those rights are never suspended.

Several countries, including neighboring Canada, allow at least some prison inmates to vote. But Chasey acknowledged it would be a big jump in public policy, undoing an approach that stretches back to slavery.

Indeed, lawmakers said they had received an outpouring of feedback on the measure.

The bill goes next to the House Judiciary Committee, where it is likely to be amended.

Update hourly