February 20, 2020

Elections cleanup bill never gets Senate vote

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A bill to make changes to the state’s elections code never received a vote in the Senate.

The bill failed after stalling by opponents of the bill, including a filibuster that lasted nearly two hours.

After a lengthy debate on a number of proposed amendments, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, requested a Call of the Senate. This requires that all senators be in the chambers, with the doors locked by the sergeants at arms. One Senator, Linda Lopez, was already in Albuquerque with a young child and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said rather than have her drive back to Santa Fe, they would roll the bill over until later in the morning. 

The Senate did not hear the bill before the end of the session.

The bill would have made a series of technical changes to the state election code ahead of this year’s elections. These included clarification on when the Legislature must redistrict after a census, procedures for same-day voter registration after this year’s election and a number of changes to absentee voting, including that the official mailing envelopes no longer needed to identify the voter.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said some of the changes were necessary before this year’s elections, which are expected to have heavy, perhaps record, turnout.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver criticized the Senate’s efforts.

“The Senators that today chose to delay and filibuster in the last hours of the legislative session instead of finishing their debate and voting on HB229 chose to ignore the will of New Mexico’s election administrators and the needs they have expressed in order to successfully administer New Mexico’s elections,” she said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “HB229 was mostly filled with minor updates, changes, and clarifications to the existing Election Code, yet Senate Republicans, in the run up to their filibuster, made false claims about its impact and attempted to fill the bill with partisan amendments that would have put up roadblocks to ballot access and made our elections less secure.

Senators put forward four proposed amendments, but each failed, two very narrowly.

The proposed amendment that appeared to have the most chance of passing, and likely ending the bill’s chances at passage, was to allow open primaries.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Rio Rancho, introduced the amendment, saying that it was necessary because so many voters are now registered as decline-to-state, or not with any major party which has primaries in the state. 

Wirth cited the “complete dysfunction in the other chamber” as a reason why any change would doom the bill. The House has been mired by slow, drawn out debates over bills and other technical arguments.

A number of Senators said they would support same-day voter registration and open primaries, but said they would not support this version because of bottleneck in the House.

Others who voted for the bill rejected that argument.

“Since when do we let the House dictate to us?” Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said. “This is the Senate, this is the upper chamber.”

“It would be nice to see a strong, bipartisan commitment to this bill going forward,” Sen. Bill O’Neill, R-Albuquerque, said. O’Neill sponsored an open primary bill in 2015.

Sapien, saying he did not want to kill the legislation, withdrew his amendment.

Pirtle later put the same amendment forward. That amendment failed on a 19-21 vote.

Before Sapien’s amendment, Pirtle introduced an amendment to add a voter ID requirement narrowly failed on a 20-21 vote. 

Republicans had previously argued the original version would take away voter identification provisions for absentee ballots.

Brandt also offered his own amendment that would require validating signatures on the official mailing envelope of the absentee ballot. That amendment failed on a 16-23 vote.

An attempt by Senate Democrats to cut off a filibuster by Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, on a different bill and resume debate on the elections bill failed after protests by Republicans.

Update: Added a quote by Maggie Toulouse Oliver.