February 4, 2023

Voting bill draws mixed opinions at legislative hearing

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Three of New Mexico’s 33 county election officials testified Friday against a bill advocates say would expand the right to vote and ensure free and fair elections in the state.

Rio Arriba County’s elections chief and the Republican clerks of Lea and Union counties voiced various concerns about House Bill 4, but a majority of speakers, including the Democratic clerks of the more populous Santa Fe and Doña Ana counties, urged legislators to pass the so-called voting rights protections bill.

More than 50 people offered a slew of reasons for their support or opposition to the bill at its first hearing, with each speaker given one minute to make their case. The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee only took public testimony Friday and is scheduled to debate and vote on the bill Wednesday.

The bill, which was resurrected after a similar measure died by filibuster in the final hours of last year’s legislative session, would provide for a permanent absentee voter list, reinstate voting rights for felons immediately upon their release from incarceration and make Election Day a state holiday.

The bill would also require each county to have at least two monitored and secured ballot drop boxes and allow a political subdivision of the state, such as a city or community college, to request one or more containers — a provision that generated pushback from election officials in Rio Arriba and Union counties.

Michele Jordan, chief of Rio Arriba County’s Bureau of Elections, said the provision would cause “a lot of hardship” for the county, which covers hundreds of miles.

“We are incapable of fulfilling that obligation to have more than two drop boxes,” she said. “If everybody requests the drop box … we’re going to end up with six extra drop boxes that cover an entire huge area. Well, we don’t have staff to cover it, and we don’t have funds to” meet the obligation.

Union County Clerk Brenda Green said her county in the northeast corner of the state is considered remote.

“I have a voter base in my county of 2,500 voters,” she said. “Right now, I have one box sitting outside of my administration building. In the last election cycle, I took in a total of 16 ballots in that box.”

If two drop boxes are required, Green said she would need three total so as not to disenfranchise voters in the northern and southern portions of the county.

“If I put in two more boxes, that box up north will be servicing approximately 400 voters. if I put the box down south, it will be servicing approximately 82 voters,” she said. “I don’t see where that is a good use of taxpayer dollars.”

In addition, she said, she only has a staff of three, including herself.

“I am a working clerk,” she said. “If we put in those additional boxes, somebody would be out of my office a minimum of four hours a day to service those.”

Lea County Clerk Keith Manes said the bill needs to be amended. He expressed particular concern with a provision of the bill in which qualified electors would be automatically registered to vote in transactions with the Motor Vehicle Division.

“I get calls, ‘Take me off. I don’t want to be registered,'” he said.

The bill says the county clerk will be responsible for sending that person a notice that includes how to decline to be registered.

“Who’s going to pay for that?” Manes asked. “The secretary of state [will] reimburse, but she still owes from 2021 elections hundreds of thousands of dollars from my understanding. It’s not her fault. The funding is just not there.”

Lindsey Bachman, legislative and executive affairs director for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, said the bill has the backing of Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

“The secretary feels that the provisions in HB 4 are pro-voter, and they’re meant to reduce bureaucracy around registering and voting that frustrate or prevent certain qualified electors from participating in the voting process.”

It does so without compromising sensible security and administrative practices, she said.

“It gives New Mexico voters more access to the ballot box and provides more protections for their voter data,” she said. “As other states roll back voting rights and ballot access, this bill will strengthen New Mexico’s status as a leader in voting protections and in voting rights.”

Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark said local voters support the bill.

“The number one thing I receive requests for is often absentee [ballots], and there are excellent guidelines administratively to make sure that voters who shouldn’t be voting absentee are not on the list,” she said.

“In terms of felons,” Clark added, “this is an excellent administrative change. Right now, we chase down paperwork, and this allows us to just decide if a person’s in front of us.”

Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin, who spoke in favor of the bill, said the “human factor” is often lost on bills the Legislature considers. She shared the story of a constituent who called her several days ago and told her about her husband’s cousin, who voted after getting out of prison.

After he voted, “he was weeping, and he basically said something along the lines of, ‘This was the last thing that was going to make me feel like I actually went back and paid my debt,’” she recalled.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.