New Mexico advances major voter rights bill

Afternoon sun shines on the New Mexico state Capitol building in Santa Fe, N.M., on Dec. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

New Mexico lawmakers are on the brink of passing one of the most sweeping expansions of voting access before any state legislature this year, after the state Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to a contentious package that spurred more than three hours of debate.

The bill, spearheaded by House Speaker Javier Martinez (D), would establish a permanent absentee voter list, allowing voters to sign up to receive their ballots by mail in every election until they move or opt out.

“Voters in New Mexico just like voters across the country are using vote by mail options more and more frequently,” state Sen. Katy Duhigg (D), the measure’s chief Senate sponsor, said Wednesday. “Voting by mail makes our elections both more accessible and it also saves our counties and election administrators taxpayer money.”

It would add New Mexico to the list of states that automatically register voters when they interact with the state Motor Vehicle Department. Twenty-two states have some form of automatic voter registration on the books.

Duhigg pointed to blue states such as neighboring Colorado and red states such as Alaska that have adopted automatic registration.

“This is not a partisan initiative, it is a good government initiative,” she said.

The bill would restore voting rights for felons when they leave custody, rather than when they complete probation or parole. It would create a Native American Voting Rights Act, and it would require every county in the state to provide at least two secured and monitored drop boxes for absentee ballots.

Republican opponents of the measure said it would make broad changes that impinged on voter rights — and on the rights of residents who do not wish to register to vote in the first place.

State Sen. William Sharer (R), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said the bill would increase suspicion among voters who already harbor doubts about the validity of past elections.

He said Democrats had questioned the results of the 2016 presidential election, in which former President Donald Trump carried the Electoral College while losing the popular vote; and Republicans questioned results of the 2020 contest, in which Trump raised unfounded and evidence-free allegations about his loss to President Biden.

“We all believe that people have a constitutional right to vote. Absolutely. That is never a question on this side of the room,” Sharer said, referring to Senate Republicans. “The issue that most of us have is, though, one vote for one person, and we’re not sure that that’s what’s happening out there. We have doubts.”

“We ought to be working together that those doubts go away,” he said.

The measure is one of a handful of election reforms advanced by Democrats this year to extend the right to vote, or access to absentee ballots.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) last week signed legislation restoring the right to vote for former felons once they leave prison. Michigan Democrats are working on an election reform package after the party seized control of the legislature in last year’s midterm elections.

The picture is very different in red states, where lawmakers have introduced at least 150 bills to restrict voting rights by the end of January, according to a tally maintained by the Brennan Center for Justice, which backs voting rights.

Lawmakers in Mississippi advanced a bill this week to scrub voter registrations of those who have not participated in elections in the last four years. Georgia senators recently approved a bill barring local election administrators from accepting donations to help them run contests.

The New Mexico legislation must return to the state House to address minor amendments the Senate added this week. After the House signs off, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) — who has backed previous voting rights measures — is expected to sign it.