February 22, 2023

Voting rights expansion passes House

Screenshot of Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, debating HB 4 concerning voting rights.

Screenshot of Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, debating HB 4 concerning voting rights.

The state House of Representatives voted to pass a bill expanding voting rights in New Mexico 41-26 following three hours of a far-reaching debate.

HB 4 seeks to expand automatic voter registration, restore released convicted felons’ right to vote, create a voluntary permanent absentee voter list and enact the Native American Voting Rights Act.

“There are threats to our sacred right to vote in this country. In this country, the franchise is a birthright or it’s the right of naturalized citizens of this country. It’s not a privilege. It is our civil right. It’s our most sacred civil right,” bill co-sponsor Majority Floor Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said. “HB 4—co-sponsored with a number of individuals— includes important provisions for our communities and our state. We have here the opportunity to put into statute the Native American Voting Rights Act. There are critical improvements to streamline and make more secure our automatic voter registration system. The secure automatic voter registration system makes certain that election administrators have the most current address for voters so our voter rolls are kept up to date.” 

Much of the debate came from Republicans, who opposed the voter rights expansions.

Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, asked many questions as he did previously in a committee hearing for the bill.

More: Voting rights bill clears its first committee

Block asked about rural drop box usage in Otero County, a sprawling, rural county that Block represents. He asked if the county clerk would need to request more secure drop boxes.

“This is a floor, not a ceiling, and the Secretary of State’s office pays for it. So it’s up to the county clerk to add additional boxes according to the geographic nature,” Chasey said.

Block followed up with a question about post offices in rural communities and how absentee ballots can also be submitted via the U.S. Postal Service rather than in a secured ballot drop box.

Currently, Otero County has two secured ballot boxes: one at the Otero County Clerk’s Office in Alamogordo and another at the Tularosa Public Safety Facility.

Block offered the first of many amendments from Republicans, all of which failed. His amendment sought to require identification at polling places, which was tabled on a 42-22 vote. 

Another part of the bill is about the voluntary absentee voter list which was designed to make absentee voting easier for those who regularly vote absentee.

Block asked how the county clerk’s office would know and update its records if a voter moved out of state or died..

Chasey said that, having had to update the absentee ballot information for a relative who had recently died, that a survivor would have to take a death notice to the county clerk’s office.

In the case of a voter moving and therefore changing their residence, the voter would update the address with the USPS which would notify the county clerk’s office when any mail sent to the old address was returned to the county clerk’s office.

More: Voter rights bill moves past House Judiciary Committee

Bill cosponsor Rep. D. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, offered an amendment, which was adopted, that removes the tribal absentee ballot assistants. 

“The goal here was to ensure that our tribes and elders have the same access to their vote and ballot box as those living off reservation and with the many differing needs in tribal communities, it is going to take a little more time to make sure we find the solution that works for tribal nations,” Johnson, who is Diné, said.

A tribal absentee ballot assistant is defined in the bill as a “person designated as a tribal vote coordinator or community health representative by an Indian nation, tribe or pueblo or by the federal Indian health service.”

Rep. Alan Martinez, R-Bernalillo, offered an amendment that would remove the voluntary permanent absentee voter list.

Chasey called the amendment unfriendly and noted that nine states have absentee voting for almost every election, including Oregon, which began the program in 1995.

The House tabled Martinez’s amendment on a 42-24 vote.

Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, sought to amend the bill to change the verbiage about secured ballot boxes to make it an option to have them rather than a requirement.

Chasey called the amendment unfriendly and the chamber tabled the amendment on a 43-23 vote.

House Minority Floor Leader Rep. T. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, proposed an amendment that would allow people to opt in to register to vote rather than opting out, as the bill currently states.

Options are provided such as unregistering by contacting their county clerk’s office, going online to unregister or by answering the postcard that says they do not wish to be registered to vote, Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, said.

“A qualified elector may become registered to vote by automatic voter registration at the motor vehicle division of the taxation and revenue department or other state or local public offices designated by the secretary of state,” the bill states.

Chasey considered the amendment unfriendly and the amendment was tabled on a 41-25 vote.

Former felons being allowed to vote has been in action in New Mexico since 2001 but it has been troublesome to put into practice.

HB 4 seeks to allow felons to vote upon their release from incarceration in a prison, not from full sentence completion.

“During the reentry phase of an inmate’s sentence, if the inmate is a voter or otherwise a qualified elector, the inmate shall be given an opportunity to register to vote or update an existing registration… prior to the inmate’s release from custody,” the bill states. “The secretary of state shall maintain current information in the statewide voter registration electronic management system on the ineligibility status of an inmate to vote or register to vote pursuant to this section, as well as an inmate’s eligibility status to vote upon release and to register to vote or update an existing voter registration while preparing for release.”

An estimated 17,000 people would become qualified to vote should the bill succeed, Chasey said.

Rep. Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis, who is a former district attorney, found issues with the part about felons having their right to vote restored upon release from a detention facility.

The bill only states that a felon’s right to vote is restored upon release from custody.

Reeb spoke on this issue during the House Judiciary Committee hearing on this bill.

“I would just point out… with the person serving house arrest or on an ankle monitor, there’s quite a bit of case law out there that says that if you are serving a sentence, it is considered presentence confinement,” Reeb said in the HJC hearing. “So you really haven’t completed all your requirements and while you’re on probation or parole, you do have pretty strict conditions of, you know, reporting and no drugs and all those different things.”

Probation periods can last up to five years in some cases and parole periods can last up to two years, Chasey said.

The bill now goes to the Senate.