New Mexico governor signs bill expanding voter access for Native Americans
SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico's governor March 30 signed a Democratic-sponsored voting rights bill aimed at expanding access to the ballot and two other related measures.
New Mexico was one of several Democratic-controlled states where lawmakers advocated for sweeping voter protections this year, drawing praise from advocates concerned about court rulings potentially undermining federal voting rights.
Under New Mexico's legislation, automatic voter registration will be provided for U.S. citizens during transactions at state motor vehicle offices and voting rights will be restored to felons immediately after incarceration. It also will streamline the distribution of absentee ballots that can be returned by mail and make absentee ballot voting easier for Native Americans living in remote stretches of tribal land.
Austin Weahkee, the Indigenous justice policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the legislation will create a more equitable voting system by addressing many of the barriers that have historically disenfranchised rural, Indigenous and formerly incarcerated voters.
"Our elected leaders recognized that voting is an absolute right and not a privilege," Weahkee said in a statement.
Voters in remote tribal areas sometimes don't have formal street addresses or receive mail at home. The bill will allow remote voters to designate a tribal government building as a home mailing address for election purposes — including community chapter houses on the Navajo Nation.
New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized Native American communities, including a large portion of the Navajo Nation. Native Americans account for about 12% of the state's population.
Under the bill, Native American communities also would have greater flexibility in designating voting locations, including ballot drop boxes. Some tribal residents were cut off from polling locations by local emergency lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Statewide, county clerks will distribute absentee ballots automatically in every election to people who sign up for the service. Before now, voters had to request an absentee ballot with each election in a voting process that can involve three or four mail deliveries.
The law also will require that each of New Mexico's 33 counties maintain at least two monitored ballot drop boxes. County clerks can request an exemption.
The governor also signed a bill that makes permanent the secretary of state's election security program and increases compensation for election workers.
The other measure signed Thursday is aimed at addressing the safety of election workers and officials. Under the legislation, the crime of intimidation will now include acts against employees and agents of the secretary of state's office, county clerk offices, municipal clerks and election officials themselves.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said she believes the three bills balance voter access protections with maintaining election security.