By the time the 2016 presidential election rolled around, New Mexico had one of the lowest rates of voting-age citizens registered to vote. Only two-thirds of the state’s eligible voters had signed up to cast a ballot, compared to at least 80 percent in Maine and the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, New Mexico also had one of the lowest rates of election turnout among its voting-age population.
One state lawmaker wants to make it easier for people to vote through an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution that would require the state to ensure every citizen who is eligible to vote is at least registered.
Senate Joint Resolution 5 would ask New Mexicans to put the state among a growing number with what is known as automatic voter registration. Such laws are popular among progressives, who argue that such a system makes it easier for the public to participate in elections. But others warn the laws could lead to voter fraud and might be ill-suited for a state like New Mexico, with closed primary elections. Even some Democrats are likely to oppose the idea.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat from Albuquerque who is sponsoring the joint resolution, said the constitutional amendment comes down to a question: “If we are going to require registration as a condition for voting, who’s responsibility is it for people to be registered?”
The joint resolution would put that responsibility on the state.
Ivey-Soto’s proposal does not lay out specifically how the state would register voters. That would be up to state officials, he said, and he believes there are several places to start. For instance, in a few other states with similar policies, the Motor Vehicle Division automatically registers eligible citizens when they get a driver’s license.
The constitutional amendment would specifically allow voters to opt out, however.
The measure also would require approval from voters. If it passes the Legislature, it would go to the ballot.
This change to the constitution would be a political statement in itself — the proposal comes in the wake of contentious efforts around the country to tighten the rules on voting, such as a requirement to show photo identification at the polls.
“The history of the last century of this country is that voter registration is about excluding voters,” Ivey-Soto said. “What we’re saying with this constitutional amendment is that we agree registration should not be used as an exclusionary tool.”
Nine states and the District of Columbia had adopted some sort of automatic voter registration policy as of December, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute.
Oregon approved a policy to register drivers who are eligible to vote when they get a license, and data suggest the measure has led to a spike in registrations. Colorado adopted a similar policy without legislation last year. Rhode Island passed an automatic voter registration bill with bipartisan support last year, as did Illinois.
Alaska automatically registers voters through its unique system of providing each resident a share of oil and gas revenue.
Legislators in Nevada passed a “motor voter” bill last year, but Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the measure, arguing it increases the possibility of improper registration. Nevadans will get to vote on the proposal in the 2018 election.
The idea has backing here from New Mexico’s top election official.
A spokesman for Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said she is “in favor of automatic voter registration and any policy that makes it easier for eligible New Mexico voters to cast a ballot.”
Still, even with Democrats in control of the Legislature here, the proposal is likely to meet with resistance.
Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, a Democrat from Albuquerque, pushed a bill last year that would automatically register to vote every eligible citizen when they get a driver’s license. A few Democrats initially joined with Republicans to block the bill in a committee, however, and later passed a version that differed little from the current practice of providing drivers the option of registering when they get a license.
Even that measure went on to die in the Senate.
While Republicans raised concerns about the state registering ineligible New Mexicans to vote or making other clerical mistakes that could lead to fraud, some Democrats also were critical of the idea, arguing the state should not be in the business of telling people to vote.
“People should choose for themselves whether they want to participate in the process or not,” Rep. Debbie Rodella, a Democrat from Río Arriba County, told a committee last year.
Critics also have cautioned that automatic voter registration may not work with New Mexico’s closed primary elections. To vote in a Democratic Party primary, for example, you must register to vote as a Democrat. The fear is that voters could be left without a party.
Meanwhile, a conservative group has charged that some counties in New Mexico have not maintained voter rolls. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, parts of the state have more registered voters than residents.
There is perhaps a more fundamental challenge in the Legislature, too.
Do politicians really want more people voting?
Ivey-Soto is not going that far. But he said changing election laws are a tough sell.
“Anytime you bring a change in election law to the Legislature,” he said, “every single committee you go before, you are proposing to change the rules under which each member was elected.”