January 25, 2019

House committee passes some voting bills, while another awaits action

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The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

The process is taking longer than Democrats would hope, but bills to expand voting rights are moving through the state legislature.

Democrats advanced two voting bills—one, to automatically restore voting rights to felons and another to expand automatic voter registration—out of the House Local Government, Elections and Land Grants Committee on party-line votes Friday.

But a bill to allow same-day voter registration failed to come up for a vote, with a visibly frustrated committee chair saying they’ll  meet again on Saturday.

The debate on the bill to allow felons to vote began Wednesday, including substantial public comment.

Felon enfranchisement

In its current form, HB 57 would remove a felony conviction from the list of reasons why the Secretary of State could cancel a voter’s registration.

“We want the people who are in prison to be engaged in their communities, we want them to participate, we want them to care about what happens,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque.

Selinda Guerrero, a community organizer with Forward Together, said that felon disenfranchisement “is rooted in racism,” dating back to the end of the Civil War. The Washington Post wrote in 2016 about these post-Civil War roots.

“But to believe that the full intent of felon disenfranchisement laws had no clear race-related goals, one must ignore the fact that this was the period in which the Ku Klux Klan was also born,” reporter Janell Ross wrote. “And, one must straight-out avoid the language that lawmakers themselves used to describe felon disenfranchisement laws and precisely which criminals they should cover.”

Currently, residents in Maine and Vermont are allowed to vote, even if they are incarcerated felons, while in 14 states and the District of Columbia, felons have their right to vote  automatically restored upon release. New Mexico is one of 22 states which allows felons to vote after serving their sentence, including parole or probation.

New Mexico legislators, including some Democrats, seemed unwilling to go as far as Maine and Vermont.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Albuquerque, said more work needed to be done, but asked that the bill be passed without recommendation while he worked on language to make sure that there was “as little obstacle as possible” to restore voting rights when felons are released from jail.

Some opponents said the bill as currently written was too drastic a change.

“I think we started at point ‘A’ and we tried to jump to point ‘C,’” Rep. Martin Zamora, R-Clovis, said.

Chasey admitted, “This is a big jump.”

“It’s from ‘A to Z,’ it’s not just from ‘A to C,’” she continued, noting that disenfranchising voters with felony records has occurred since the 19th century.

All Democrats present voted for the bill, while the three Republicans opposed the legislation and objected to the lack of time to debate the bill.

Automatic voter registration

The House panel also passed legislation to streamline automatic voter registration in the state.

The bill changes the state’s “motor voter” law by requiring the Motor Vehicle Department to make voter registration at offices an “opt in” rather than an “opt out” process.

The bill also requires the Secretary of State to study if state agencies can also serve as points of voter registration, including whether they collect the data needed to register to vote.

Other bills

The committee did not finish debate on the bill that would allow voters to register to vote on the same day they vote, either in early voting or on Election Day. Republicans expressed concern about making sure those who registered were eligible to vote.

“There’s a great degree of enthusiasm,” sponsor Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, said of the legislation.

The committee will finish debate and vote on the bill at their next meeting, which could take place as early as Saturday.

Earlier in the week, the committee passed a bill to join a national compact on electing the president through the national popular vote instead of through the Electoral College.