March 13, 2015

House committee votes to advance voter ID legislation

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Photo via Flickr by Erik (HASH) Hersman

A panel with a Republican majority split along party lines on Friday to approve a bill requiring voters to present photo identification before casting election ballots.

Photo via Flickr by Erik (HASH) Hersman

Photo via Flickr by Erik (HASH) Hersman

Similar requirements enacted in other states have ignited controversy and costly court battles; critics contend voter ID laws disenfranchise eligible voters from low-income and minority communities.

The legislation now heads to the House floor.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said HB 340 was drafted to safeguard the integrity of the elections process while also passing constitutional muster.

“I like to think of this more as voter authentication,” Brown told members of the House Judiciary Committee. New Mexico’s current elections system doesn’t offer enough protection against voter fraud, said Brown, admitting that “no one really knows” whether such fraud is taking place.

“We hear anecdotal information,” she said. “We know that it can happen, and that’s what we need to focus on.”

Brown’s bill requires that anyone showing up to vote in person show a photo ID issued by the state, federal government or an identification from a federally-recognized Indian nation, tribe or pueblo that matches their name on the voter registration rolls.

Under the legislation, voters could use a provisional paper ballot if they show up to vote without the proper ID, but their vote would not be counted unless they show up at their county clerk’s office within two days of the election with the required ID in hand.

Brown said the bill also provides for folks who don’t currently have the proper ID to vote to obtain a provisional one from the state DMV for free, as long as they are able to furnish the regularly required documents. Those provisional IDs would be funded by drawing money out of the Secretary of State’s account for public financing of elections.

Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a longtime champion of voter ID measures, appeared with a staffer as Brown’s expert witnesses. Duran said she’s been working on voter ID legislation since 1993 when she was a state senator, and that the intervening years of trial, error and discussion have resulted in the latest version of HB 340.

“Whether it’s a deliberate attempt to commit voter fraud, or whether it’s a mistake on the part of the precinct official … we all have an obligation to do what we can to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.” Duran stressed that HB 340 was the only one of a few related proposals under consideration this year that specifically requires voters to present photo ID at the polls.

Meredith Machen, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, told the New Mexico Political Report that her organization opposes voter ID requirements because of the potential to cut eligible voters out of the state’s already low turnout numbers. However, she said, HB 340 was “especially bad.”

“It’s better than the bills from years ago,” said Machen, “but basically the estimates are that 8 to 10 percent of the New Mexico population will be disenfranchised by the photo ID [requirement]. And we don’t know what the numbers are in terms of discouraged voters.”

Machen added that bill’s allowance for use of public elections financing money to cover the cost of provision photo IDs constituted a “raid” on the fund.

Supporters of the bill appearing during public comment were Duran’s interim elections director and Matt Stackpole, the deputy general counsel for Gov. Susana Martinez’s office.

Among the 10 individuals and association representatives standing in opposition were the American Civil Liberties Union, the Native American Voters Alliance and county clerks from Bernallilo and Chaves Counties.

Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver ran against Duran in a 2014 general election campaign largely centered on the voter ID issue. She told the committee she was “very dismayed” that another voter verification bill, HB 61 sponsored by Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, wasn’t being heard Friday afternoon as originally scheduled.

“That particular bill was crafted with bipartisan support of state county clerks,” said Toulouse Oliver. “We are the ones making sure the law is being followed at the polls.”

She added that she wasn’t looking forward to dealing with “the thousands of provisional ballots that are going to be generated” in the event Brown’s bill is enacted.

Jim Jackson, executive director of Disability Rights New Mexico, testified that “there are some voters out there for whom this will be an issue, and they can’t readily go down to MVD for a photo ID, even if it’s free.”

He added that “it imposes a hardship on some of those folks, and we want to be sure everyone has the opportunity to vote.”

The bill’s controversial nature was on further display later in the day as House Democrats objected on the floor to the mere adoption of the committee report of its latest version. Democrats objected to the committee report on voice vote, and it was ultimately adopted on a roll call vote.

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