On February 22, the New Mexico House of Representatives passed House Bill HB 4 the Voting Rights Act, by the very comfortable margin of 41-26. The bill will now go on to the Senate for consideration. If passed by the Senate, the new bill would do the following:
1. Phasing in a system of automatic voter registration, such as during MVD transactions, for citizens who are qualified to vote but aren’t registered. Supporters say it would include an opt-out for those who don’t want to register, similar to what’s used in Colorado.
2. Creation of a permanent absentee voter list. Voters would have the option of opting in to receive ballots by mail before every election rather than having to apply each time.
3. Automatic restoration of voting rights for inmates exiting prison. Under the current system, they must complete probation or parole before registering to vote again. There are 21 states that automatically restore voting rights after incarceration. Another 16, including New Mexico, require someone convicted of a felony to complete their entire sentence, including probation and parole, before registering to vote.
4. Establishing a Native American Voting Rights Act intended to better coordinate access to the polls on tribal land and allow the use of tribal buildings as a voter-registration address for people without a traditional address.
5. Calling for election day to be a state holiday.
House Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque is a bill co-sponsor and a licensed New Mexico Attorney. She had this to say about HB 4 during debate:
“There are threats to our sacred right to vote in this country. In this country, the franchise is a birthright or it’s the right of naturalized citizens of this country. It’s not a privilege. It is our civil right. It’s our most sacred civil right. … HB 4—co-sponsored with a number of individuals— includes important provisions for our communities and our state. We have here the opportunity to put into statute the Native American Voting Rights Act. There are critical improvements to streamline and make more secure our automatic voter registration system. The secure automatic voter registration system makes certain that election administrators have the most current address for voters so our voter rolls are kept up to date.”
The state House debated for over 3 hours with the final voted concluded at 11:20 p.m. The bill passed mostly along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. House passage of HB 4 results in it being forwarded to the Senate where intense Republican opposition is expected.
AMENDMENTS AND CONTESTED PROVSIONS
Most of the debate on the House floor and opposition to HB 4 Bill came from Republicans who strenuously opposed voter rights expansions and oppose efforts to make voting more convenient. It was Alamogordo Republican John Block who offered the first of many amendments from Republicans, all of which failed. Block’s first amendment sought to require identification at polling places, which was tabled on a 42-22 vote.
ABSENTEE VOTER LIST CHALLENGED
Republican Representative Block questioned the provision of the bill calling for the creation of a permanent absentee voter list where voters would have the option of opting in to receive ballots by mail before every election rather than having to apply each time. Block asked how the county clerk’s office would know and update its records if a voter moved out of state or died.
Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey said that, having had to update the absentee ballot information for a relative who had recently died, that a survivor would have to take a death notice to the county clerk’s office. In the case of a voter moving and therefore changing their residence, the voter would update the address with the USPS which would notify the county clerk’s office when any mail sent to the old address was returned to the county clerk’s office.
Bernalillo County Republican State Representative Alan Martinez, R-Bernalillo sponsored an amendment that would remove the voluntary permanent absentee voter list. Representative Chasey called the amendment unfriendly and noted that 9 states have absentee voting for almost every election, including Oregon, which began the program in 1995. The House tabled Martinez’s amendment on a 42-24 vote killing the amendment.
DROP BOXES CHALLENGED
Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, repeated on the House floor many of the same questions he had previously asked in a committee hearing for the bill. Attacks on the use of election “drop boxes” for ballots in particular have proven to be a very popular area of objection and accusations of fraud by Republicans after Der Führer former Der President Donald Trump made it so in his 2020 election denying his loss.
Block asked about rural drop box usage in Otero County, a sprawling, rural county that Block represents. Otero County has 2 secured ballot boxes: one at the Otero County Clerk’s Office in Alamogordo and another at the Tularosa Public Safety Facility. Block asked a question about post offices in rural communities and how absentee ballots can also be submitted via the U.S. Postal Service rather than in a secured ballot drop box. Block wanted to know if the county clerk would need to request more secure drop boxes.
House Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey responded to Blocks questions on drop boxes by saying:
“This is a floor, not a ceiling, and the Secretary of State’s office pays for it. So it’s up to the county clerk to add additional boxes according to the geographic nature.”
SECURED BALLOT BOXES CHALLENGED
Roswell Republican Greg Nibert sought to amend the bill to change the verbiage about secured ballot boxes to make it an option to have them rather than a requirement. Floor Leader Gail Chasey Chasey called the amendment unfriendly and the chamber tabled the amendment on a 43-23 vote killing the amendment.
FELONS BEING ALLOWED TO VOTE CHALLENGED
Since 2001, convicted felons who have served their time and sentence have been allowed to vote. HB 4 seeks to expand the right to vote by allowing felons to vote upon their release from incarceration in a prison, not wait until their full sentence of probation is completed.
HB 4 states:
“During the reentry phase of an inmate’s sentence, if the inmate is a voter or otherwise a qualified elector, the inmate shall be given an opportunity to register to vote or update an existing registration… prior to the inmate’s release from custody. … The secretary of state shall maintain current information in the statewide voter registration electronic management system on the ineligibility status of an inmate to vote or register to vote pursuant to this section, as well as an inmate’s eligibility status to vote upon release and to register to vote or update an existing voter registration while preparing for release.”
Republican State Representative Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis, a former District Attorney objected to felons having their right to vote restored upon release from a detention facility. HB 4 only states that a felon’s right to vote is restored upon release from custody.
Reeb said this on this issue during the House Judiciary Committee on HB 4:
“I would just point out… with the person serving house arrest or on an ankle monitor, there’s quite a bit of case law out there that says that if you are serving a sentence, it is considered presentence confinement. … So you really haven’t completed all your requirements and while you’re on probation or parole, you do have pretty strict conditions of, you know, reporting and no drugs and all those different things.”
In response to Reeb, House Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey, who is also an attorney, said probation periods can last up to 5 years in some cases and parole periods can last up to 2 years. Chasey said an estimated 17,000 people would become qualified to vote should the bill succeed.
AUTOMATIC VOTER REGISTRATION CHALLENGED
The most intensely contested part of the bill is a provision phasing in automatic voter registration during some transactions at Motor Vehicle Division offices. An example would be when a person presents documents proving citizenship while applying for a driver’s license. The newly registered voters would be told they’ve been added to the voter rolls and that they’ll get a postcard in the mail allowing them to decline the registration.
Republican Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, an opponent of the bill said its inappropriate to register someone to vote, even if it’s briefly, over their objection. He said said the will of the people, not the government, should drive voter turnout and not registration and he said this:
“It’s manipulative to do it without their consent.”
Aztec areas Republican House Minority Floor Leader T. Ryan Lane sponsored an amendment that would allow people to opt in to register to vote rather than opting out as the bill currently states. As written, bill states”
“A qualified elector may become registered to vote by automatic voter registration at the motor vehicle division of the taxation and revenue department or other state or local public offices designated by the secretary of state.”
Arguing against the amendment Democrat Representative Christine Chandler of Los Alamos said options are provided such as unregistering by contacting their county clerk’s office, going online to unregister or by answering the postcard that says they do not wish to be registered to vote. Once again, Democrat Floor leader Chasey considered the amendment unfriendly and the amendment was tabled on a 41-25 vote thereby killing it.
ADOPTED AMENDMENT REMOVING TRIBAL ABSENTEE BALLOT ASSISTANTS
Gallup Democrat Representative D. Wonda Johnson, a co-sponsor of HB 4 offered an amendment that removes the tribal absentee ballot assistants ostensibly after it was determined to be unnecessary. Under the bill, a tribal absentee ballot assistant is defined in the bill as a “person designated as a tribal vote coordinator or community health representative by an Indian nation, tribe or pueblo or by the federal Indian health service.” The House voted to adopt the amendment.
Representative Johnson, who is a Diné native American, said this about the original intent of the provision:
“The goal here was to ensure that our tribes and elders have the same access to their vote and ballot box as those living off reservation and with the many differing needs in tribal communities, it is going to take a little more time to make sure we find the solution that works for tribal nations.”
REACTION TO HOUSE PASSAGE
House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat who presented the bill, described the legislation as “a major step forward for protecting the right to vote for our citizens in New Mexico.”
Senator Katy Duhigg, an Albuquerque Democrat and a former Albuquerque City Clerk is a co-sponsor of Bill 4. Duhigg had this to say about the House passage of the bill:
“[Democrats]remain dedicated to getting the New Mexico Voting Rights Act passed and signed into law. … Democracy thrives when we eliminate the unnecessary and cumbersome barriers to being involved in the process and the New Mexico Voting Rights Act reaffirms our state’s commitment to safeguarding the sacred right to vote.”
Representative Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, had this to say:
“Letting every voice be heard, that’s what we want.”
LEGISLATIVE LEADERSHIP REACT
New Mexico House Speaker Javier Martínez made it clear at the beginning of the 2023 Legislative session that the protection of voting rights would be a priority. Martínez said this:
“As other states are rolling back voting rights and restricting access to the ballot box, New Mexico will continue to work hard to ensure that we remove unnecessary barriers so that all eligible voters can make their voices heard. … Our government works better when all people, no matter their walk of life, have a voice in who represents them. [The bill provisions are] critical to safeguarding our democracy.”
Democrat House Majority Leader Gail Chasey called the legislation a “game-changing piece of legislation.” Chasey and said this at the beginning of the session:
“At its core, it modernizes our elections and empowers our voters, making it easier for thousands of New Mexicans to register and to vote. … There’s simply too much at stake for our state and for our country — from reproductive rights to climate change to social justice to our economy — to allow only a portion of our citizens to have a vote.”
Republicans for their part argued they were right to block last year’s voting bill. However, they expressed willingness this year to pursue a bipartisan compromise on election security during this year’s legislative session. Republican Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca said this:
“Election security and integrity are more important than ever, and we will continue to engage in good faith efforts to make needed changes to our Election Code. … Last year, we followed the lead of our County Clerks and unanimously passed a bipartisan election bill out of the Senate that strengthened voter rights and improved election security. … Unfortunately, that consensus bill was hijacked and derailed in the House by the majority party.”
Democrat Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver who strenuously promoted last year’s legislation only to see it go down to defeat called this year’s proposal “a strong step forward for New Mexico.” Toulouse Oliver said this:
“This legislation, I think, is even better because it has really been spearheaded and brought to life by the advocacy community [that wants] to continue to sort of pick up the ball and continue to move it forward on advancing voting rights here in New Mexico.”
The links to quoted and relied upon news sources are here:
Link to NM Politcal Report article “Voting rights expansion passes House” written by dated
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Last year during the 2022 legislative session, a short 30 day session, the Voting Rights Bill failed in the Senate after passage in the House despite endorsement from Governor Michell Lujan Grisham, Secretary of State Maggie Talouse Oliver and Democratic leadership. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver had made passage of last year’s bill a huge priority because of election deniers only to see it go down in defeat as Republicans out maneuvered them.
Democrats and the voting public need to remember that it was Republican Senator William Sharer, R-Farmington, who effectively killed the measure last year with a filibuster on the Senate floor. In order to run out the clock on the legislative session, Sharer talked about San Juan River fly-fishing, baseball rules, Navajo Code Talkers and the celestial alignment of the sun and moon during his lengthy filler buster on the Senate floor. Sharer’s antics are a prime example of the lengths Republicans will go to in order to interfere with a person’s right to vote and make it as difficult as possible to vote and to disenfranchise people.
Democrats in the 2023 legislative session hold a 45-25 majority in the House and a 27-15 edge in the Senate and this year’s session is a 60 day session so there is ample time to get it enacted. Contributing to the likely passage is that the most controversial provisions have now been removed including the removal of allowing 16-year-olds to vote in school and city elections. With a little more than 3 weeks left of the 2023 legislative session, Senate Democrats need to move as quickly as possible to get a final vote on Voting Rights Act passed by the House in order to avoid another embarrassing Republican filibuster.