March 1, 2017

Over GOP objections, voter registration bill advances

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Photo via Flickr by Erik (HASH) Hersman

After a rancorous and partisan debate Wednesday, state senators approved a bill that would allow people to register to vote up to three days before an election.

Voter registration now stops 28 days before a primary or general election. The bill sponsor, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, called that an antiquated cutoff date and said some states offer same-day voter registration.

Steinborn’s Senate Bill 224 passed on a 19-11 party-line vote with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposing. The fact that all Republicans voted against it probably is not a good sign that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez would sign the bill if it clears the House of Representatives.

Steinborn said his bill would be good for the state.

“This legislation will greatly expand the time period that citizens can register to vote and result in more people exercising their right to vote,” he said. “When more citizens participate in our democracy, our democracy is stronger.”

Some Republicans disagreed.

“Who’s going to register three days before?” asked Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington. “The person who wasn’t paying any attention and doesn’t care about politics and someone drug him out and said, `Oh, you’d better vote this way.’ People who don’t care are the ones who are going to register then. That’s all right. I’m not actually opposed to that. What I am opposed to though is the perpetual banging on our electoral system to make it less honest, less real, less proper in what we think democracy and a republic stands for.”

Sharer tried to change the bill to make voters show photo identification to vote in person — a Republican position across the country. His amendment failed on a party-line vote.

Afterward, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said that people only seem to care about constitutional rights when it applies to issues they support. Referring to gun bills in the Legislature, he said, “Hopefully everybody who supports the right to vote will support the right to bear arms.”

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said three days might not be enough time for election officials to make sure that those attempting to register are U.S. citizens. Steinborn said there is no evidence of mass in-person voter fraud in states with similar laws.

Under the bill, late registrations would take place at early-voting polling places. Through electronic technology, all early voting sites can immediately verify whether someone is eligible to vote, Steinborn said. If there is any question, the voter would be given a provisional ballot, he said.

But an analysis of the bill by the Legislative Finance Committee’s staff quoted the Secretary of State’s Office as saying the ballot-on-demand systems used to check in voters and produce a ballot are currently not connected in real time with the statewide voter registration system.

Steinborn said the secretary of state expects to have that system in place by the end of the year, well before the June 2018 primary election. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who was sitting behind him as an expert witness, nodded in agreement.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.

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