By Daniel J. Chacón, Santa Fe New Mexican Coverage of the 2023 New Mexico Legislative Session in this publication is made available through a partnership with the Santa Fe New Mexican and The Paper.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has worn a pin reading “Let the people vote” plenty of times in the past.
But the black and white pin had special significance Monday as Toulouse Oliver appeared before a Senate committee in support of a bill resurrected from last year that advocates say would make it easier for New Mexicans to vote.
“Obviously, the point of this legislation is to expand access to the ballot box, and of course that’s part and parcel of the work that I do every day, so yes, it is a very strong message that I’d like to send everywhere I go,” Toulouse Oliver said.
A majority of members on the Senate Rules Committee got the message, endorsing an amended version of HB 4, dubbed the New Mexico Voting Rights Act, on a 5-2 party-line vote.
“Despite a lot of recent progress in strengthening voting opportunities for all New Mexicans, New Mexico still lags behind other states in our percentage of citizens that are registered to vote and the number of folks who exercise that right at election time,” said Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, a former city clerk who is sponsoring the measure with House Speaker Javier Martínez and other Democrats.
The bill would enact automatic voter registration when citizens complete a transaction at the Motor Vehicle Division or another state or local government agency designated to do so by the secretary of state; create a permanent absentee voter list; automatically restore the voting rights of convicted felons upon their release from incarceration even if they’re on parole; and make Election Day a state holiday.
The bill also would enact the Native American Voting Rights Act, which Duhigg called one of the central components of HB 4. It would, among other things, align precinct boundaries with political boundaries of tribes and pueblos; require translation services at polls; and allow voters living on tribal land to designate a tribal government building as their mailing address.
“The right to vote is fundamental, and New Mexicans deserve to be able to exercise those rights fully and fairly without any unnecessary burdens,” Duhigg said. “House Bill 4 is a step toward that goal while ensuring that our elections are both safe and secure.”
The voting protections for Native Americans in HB 4 have generated little, if any, resistance.
But other provisions of the bill, including the proposed creation of a permanent absentee voter list, have stoked fears of fraud in elections.
Erin Clements, who pushed last year for Otero County commissioners not to certify the results of the county’s primary election results, told the committee most voters don’t believe elections are secure.
“This bill would vastly open up opportunities for fraud, particularly with an absentee mailing list that’s permanent,” she said.
Clements said she didn’t know why automatic voter registration is being pushed by “particular politicians … when the public does not trust our elections.”
Carla Sonntag, president of the New Mexico Business Coalition, said the group supports “everyone’s right to vote” and making voting “easy and accessible.”
But Sonntag added “there are several problems with this bill that we take exception to,” including automatic voter registration.
“That really is a violation of [people’s] rights,” she said, adding government agencies “don’t have the right to register someone without their knowledge and consent.”
Last year’s bill drew stiff opposition and died in a controversial filibuster in the final hours of the 30-day session.
The strategy this year by Democrats — who have vast majorities in both the Senate and House — was to get the bill in early to give it enough time to cross the finish line and onto the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, chastised Democrats for putting the bill on such a fast track.
“I’ve been here a while — 11 years — and it’s just strange to me that with three weeks left [of the 60-day session], we’re hearing a bill like this on the Senate side,” he said. “I mean, 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. I think it’s just extremely disrespectful to the body.”
The bill heads next to the Senate Judiciary Committee.