February 9, 2023

Voting rights bill clears its first committee

A "Vote Here" sign at the Otero County Fairgrounds in Alamogordo.

Nicole Maxwell

A "Vote Here" sign at the Otero County Fairgrounds in Alamogordo.

The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would update the state election code.

The bill passed on a party line 6-3 vote with the three Republicans on the committee voting against the bill.

HB 4 would add automatic voter registration, restore a released felon’s right to vote, create a voluntary permanent absentee voter and add voting protections and improved access for Native Americans.

It also makes general or local election days school holidays and allows counties to apply for more secured ballot boxes.

The committee rolled over HB 4 during the Friday meeting last week due to time constraints after hearing public comment. On Wednesday, the committee went straight to discussion and, eventually, a vote.

“Our democracy works best when members from all of our diverse communities can safely and consistently exercise their freedom to vote without unnecessary barriers,” bill cosponsor and Speaker of the House Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said in a news release. “This historic legislation will ensure that all eligible New Mexicans have the opportunity to vote, and know that our election process is fair and secure.” 

The bill was presented by bill sponsor and House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee Chairwoman Wonda Johnson, D-Churchrock, with her expert witness, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

“Working with tribal communities, election officials, and community advocates, we have put together a bill that will make New Mexico a national model for fair and accessible elections,” Johnson said in the news release. “I am excited that this landmark legislation is moving forward. We are taking specific, tangible steps to expand voting access in historically-disenfranchised tribes, pueblos, and nations across our state.” 

Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, proposed an amendment to add a voter identification requirement for voters, but the amendment failed on a party-line vote.

The committee nearly rolled the bill to another meeting after encountering troubles with internet access at the Roundhouse. The connectivity problems led to all morning committees falling offline.

The internet was restored and the meeting continued with another round of committee questions, comments and concerns and, finally, the vote.

Fiscal impacts

HB 4’s fiscal implications include the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department’s IT Department.

“The estimated time to develop, test, and implement the changes is approximately 2,704 hours or 17 months and approximately $718,020 ($567,840 contractual resources including gross receipts tax, and staff workload costs of $150,180). The bill will require the state Motor Vehicle Division to partner with SOS to make changes to the interface between the two agencies,” according to the Fiscal Impact Report.

One of HB 4’s provisions is restoring voting rights to convicted felons upon their release from prison.

The bill still prohibits incarcerated individuals the right to vote but reinstates it upon their release following either registering to vote or updating their voter registration.

Inmates will be given the opportunity to register to vote during their sentence’s re-entry phase.

HB 4 also establishes further protections for voter data.

The voluntary permanent absentee voter list would allow those who prefer to vote absentee to be placed on a list so they do not have to apply for an absentee ballot for each election.

The voter will be removed from the list if they fail to return a mailed ballot in two consecutive elections, if the county clerk has had election mail including a mailed ballot returned as undeliverable, if the voter registration is updated to include an out-of-county address or if the voter requests to be removed from the list.

HB 4 also gives political subdivisions—such as school districts and municipalities— the option to ask for more monitored secured containers.

Political subdivisions can make a written request to their county clerk’s office for one or more monitored secured containers on or near the subdivision’s boundaries and allows the political subdivision to appeal to the Secretary of State’s Office should they be denied.

HB 4 was sponsored by Martínez, House Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, and Johnson.

The bill goes to the House Judiciary Committee next.