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By Robert Nott The Santa Fe New Mexican

A bill Senate Republicans were using as a political cudgel to hold up a vote on sweeping voting rights legislation has changed forms — and become even more controversial. 

Lawmakers on Tuesday married language from Senate Bill 8 to text from two related election acts — creating a 165-page omnibus bill in an effort to get the legislation passed by Thursday, when this year’s session ends. 

Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee voted 9-3 along party lines, with Democrats supporting it, to approve the amended bill, called Senate Bill 144. But that came only after about four hours of debate, with Republican members of the committee and some members of the public protesting.

The legislation now goes to the House of Representatives for a vote. 

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, one of the sponsors of the new bill, said lawmakers often “take disparate package bills out there and put them in one bill for a variety of purposes,” particularly near the end of a legislative session. 

“There has been some criticism that we are doing something unusual or log rolling or whatever term you want to use,” he said. “That is not correct.”

Not everyone saw it that way. One woman who testified during Tuesday’s virtual hearing on the bill said it felt as if the bill was “being crammed down our throats” at the last minute. Others said it was unfair to expect people to read and comprehend a 165-page bill with so little time left in the session. 

There were also supporters for the new bill, with some members of the public saying it provides a far-reaching set of election protection standards that will increase voter turnout and make accessing the polls easier.

Ely said the new bill contains no new language but simply combines and condenses the best parts of the three election-related bills. 

The original SB 8 would restore felons’ right to vote upon their release, allow voters to receive an absentee ballot for every election without having to request one each time and allow New Mexicans without a state-issued ID to register to vote online with a Social Security number. The bill also would allow 17-year-olds to vote in local elections, but only if they turn 18 by the next general election, among other provisions.

Most of those provisions remain in the omnibus bill, as do measures from Senate Bill 6 and the original SB 144. SB 6 was a bipartisan elections bill that would require training for challengers, watchers and observers and create a program to clean the state’s voter rolls, among other items.

Meanwhile, the original two-page SB 144 would have amended the crime of intimidation to include acts against county clerk employees who oversee elections. 

Now all three are rolled into an amended version of SB 144. 

The initial voting rights bill, SB 8, was supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and leading Senate Democrats. But it hit small roadblocks early on as lawmakers from both parties suggested changes, deletions and amendments. 

Senate Republicans have raised a multitude of concerns about SB 8 that center on election integrity. They contend the legislation could lead to voter fraud and that Democrats are using the legislation for political gain.

Senate Republicans on Saturday pulled a legislative maneuver to block debate on the legislation. The procedure, a stalling tactic known as a “call of the Senate,” requires every member of the chamber to be physically present in the Capitol for a bill to be considered. But at least two senators remained at large, effectively stopping SB 8.

Later in the week, a spokesman for Senate Republicans said they would not budge on their stance until lawmakers approved one of the other election bills, which had bipartisan support. 

If the House of Representatives votes to approve the amended SB 144, it will then be sent back to the Senate for a vote of concurrence. Joaquin Romero, spokesman for Senate Republicans, wrote in an email Tuesday his caucus was not consulted on the amended bill and its members “certainly do not support” the process that created it. 

“If anything, the actions in House Judiciary today have created even more tension,” he wrote. “All of this could have been avoided if House Democrats would have simply passed SB 6 like we did unanimously in the Senate.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, noted members of the Senate were working Tuesday to combine an array of crime reform bills into one omnibus piece of legislation. She said such actions are not unusual during legislative sessions. 

“This happens at the end of a session, it happens every time,” she said. “And I wish we didn’t have to do it that way, I wish we had a little more time to do our jobs. As frustrating as it can be [for you], I assure you it is somewhat frustrating for us as well.”