February 20, 2019

House passes automatic voter registration bill

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Following a contentious debate, the state House of Representatives late Tuesday voted to approve a bill that would automatically register eligible New Mexicans to vote when they conduct transactions with the Motor Vehicle Division.

House Bill 84 includes a provision that allows those citizens to opt out of registering or updating their existing voter registration as they apply for a driver’s license or state identity card.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver spoke in favor of the legislation during a news conference at the Capitol earlier in the day, saying, “When more eligible voters vote, our democracy wins.”

She said the bill, if it becomes law, has the potential to increase voter participation by 30 percent, or, according to a fiscal impact report, some 385,000 people.

Rep. Debra Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the proposal “would make it more likely that anyone who wants to cast a vote can.”

But Tuesday night’s 44-22 vote did not come without conflict over the course of the nearly three-hour floor fight. Several House Republicans, voicing concerns about voter fraud or the possibility of registering undocumented immigrants, introduced a trio of amendments that would have required the Secretary of State or some other governmental agency to confirm the registration data.

But Sariñana would not accept the amendments as friendly, explaining that the registration forms would go to local county clerks for verification before anyone who registered was actually allowed to vote.

Frustrated by the slow pace of the debate and Republican efforts to alter the bill, Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, asked the House to support him in ending debate and calling for a vote after just one hour. The normal deadline for debate on any bill is three hours.

House Republicans protested Ely’s idea, with House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, telling House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, “This is the wrong way to handle this.”

When Egolf sided with Ely and told Montoya he was not being recognized, Montoya snapped back, “I know I am not being recognized. This party has not been recognized over and over and over again.”

But Ely’s effort failed by a vote of 43-23. House rules mandate that any such action be supported by a majority vote of two thirds of the membership, meaning it needed 44 votes out of a possible 66 to succeed. One Democrat, Candie Sweetser of Deming, sided with Republicans on the measure, and the dialogue continued until past 10:30 p.m.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House 46-24. Tuesday night’s conflict was the second time in roughly ten days that the two parties have openly clashed over an issue during a floor debate.

Earlier Tuesday, Egolf said he thought Republicans were deliberately dragging out the debate process to slow down bills they do not support. He said it would be within his right to request support from both the House Rules Committee and the House membership to change the rules of debate, decreasing that three-hour limit if need be.

“There’s not a huge appetite to do that right now,” he said.