Voting rights bill in New Mexico to benefit rural Indigenous residents
SANTA FE, N.M. — A Democratic-sponsored voting rights bill aimed at expanding access to the ballot in New Mexico won state Senate approval March 8, clearing its last major hurdle in the Legislature.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has expressed support for major provisions in the bill. The 27-14 vote of the Senate was divided along partisan lines with Republicans in opposition and just one absence. House approval of minor Senate amendments is pending before the governor can sign.
New Mexico is one of several Democratic-controlled states where lawmakers are advocating for sweeping voter protections this year, reacting to what they view as a broad undermining of voting rights by the Supreme Court and Republican-led states — along with a failed effort in Congress to bolster access to the polls. Additional New Mexico bills would guard against harassment and intimidation of election workers and ban guns at voting locations.
The voting rights bill would provide automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices and help restore voting rights to felons immediately after incarceration. It would also 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.
Democratic state Sen. Bill O'Neill, of Albuquerque, said current paperwork requirements for voting after incarceration are a "real impediment to people voting after they've paid their debt to society."
He hopes recidivism will decline with changes that offer voter registration as inmates leave prison. At least 14 states have introduced proposals this year focused on restoration of voting rights.
Under the bill, voter registration would also become automatic for U.S. citizens during transactions at state motor vehicle offices. And the secretary of state could eventually expand voter registration services to other agencies, including tribal government and the Human Resources Department that oversees Medicaid and nutritional assistance payments.
Voter registration already is available at motor vehicle offices by choice, requiring some additional steps to complete the process.
Mail-in voting by absentee ballot would require fewer steps, under the bill.
County clerks would distribute absentee ballots automatically in every election to people who sign up for the service. Currently, voters must request an absentee ballot with each election in a voting process that can involve three or four mail deliveries.
Republicans extended debate on the bill for hours with a series of unsuccessful amendment proposals while highlighting the ease of voting under current regulations.
"The truth of the matter is it doesn't expand voting rights," said Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Republican from Roswell. "I don't believe anybody was prevented from voting that wanted to."
The bill requires that each of New Mexico's 33 counties maintain at least two monitored ballot drop boxes. County clerks can request an exemption. Election day would become a school holiday.
The bill also aims to make it easier for people living in remote stretches of tribal land in Native American communities to vote by absentee ballot.
Voters in remote tribal areas sometimes don't have formal street addresses or receive mail at home. The bill would 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 designative voting locations, including ballot drop boxes. Some tribal residents were cut off from polling locations by local emergency lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Democratic state Sen. Shannon Pinto, from the Navajo community of Tohatchi, praised the proposed changes.
"It is very important that we still continue to make progress, that the voices are heard for all people," she said.