Lawmakers consider voting rights

By Syaire Riley

New Mexico lawmakers are considering major updates to the election code that would expand automatic voter registration, create a permanent absentee ballot list, protect Native American voting rights an make it easier for convicted felons to legally vote when they leave prison.

The bill “gives New Mexican voters more access to the voters box and provides more protection for voter data,” said Lindsey Bachman, the director of legislative and executive affairs for the New Mexico Secretary of Sate’s office.

The New Mexico Voting Rights Act is a 45-page bill sponsored by House Democratic leaders, designed to expand and protect the right to vote. A similar bill was introduced last year but died on the last day of the session after a Republican filibuster

The bill is opposed by the state Republican Party, which included it on a list of “bad bills to watch” emailed to supporters. 

Some critics say they’re concerned about the integrity of the vote worried about practical issues around drop boxes. Republican activist Ramona Goolsby spoke against the proposal during a legislative hearing.

“Why are we gonna be required to have more voter drop boxes when we already have the United States Postal Service, which is the largest drop box in the country?” Goolsby said in an interview.

The current version of the legislation would make it easier for people to sign up to vote automatically, making a permanent list of people who have chosen not to vote, and passing the Native American Voting Rights Act.

In a press release, Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Mario Jimenez said that the bill is “long overdue.”

“For far too long, we have been disenfranchising people in New Mexico because of various obstacles to both registration and voting,” Jimenez said.

During a hearing in the New Mexico state Legislature, Michele Jordan, the bureau of elections chief for Rio Arriba County, said her office didn’t have enough staff to properly monitor and service drop boxes as the proposal requires.

“We have four election staff that cover hundreds of miles in our county,” Jordan said. “We have two separate offices and are incapable of fulfilling the obligation to have more han two dropboxes.”

The bill would also make it easier for felons to legally vote. A voter who has been convicted of a felony can’t vote while they are in prison, but they can cast a ballot when they get out, as long as they register to vote or update their registration. 

But the process is complicated, sponsor Gail Chasey told New Mexico PBS.

“If passed this will literally enable thousands of people to get back on the voter rolls and be more a part of our society,” Chasey said, adding that evidence shows that felons are less likely to reoffend if they are more involved in public life.

Carla Sonntag, the president and CEO of Better Together New Mexico disagreed, saying felons should earn back their right to vote. 

“We are all about second chances, but they should finish their sentence to society and then determine if they want to vote,” Sonntag said. 

The proposal now heads to the state House floor.