March 9, 2023

Voting rights bill passes senate, nears governor’s desk

Screenshot of Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, presents HB 4- the Voting Rights Act at a Senate Floor hearing on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Screenshot of Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, presents HB 4- the Voting Rights Act at a Senate Floor hearing on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

A bill that seeks to update the state’s Election Code and make it easier for New Mexicans to vote passed the Senate on a 27 to 14 party line vote after a lengthy debate.

HB 4, the Voting Rights Act, would expand automatic voter registration, restore convicted felons’ right to vote upon release from prison, create a voluntary permanent absentee voter list, and enact the Native American Voting Rights Act to the state Election Code.

“Our democracy, our sacred right to vote is under threat and this requires a strong community driven response. That’s why this bill is before this body today,” Sen. Katy Duhigg said.

Duhigg, a Democrat from Albuquerque, described the bill, and focused on the Native American Voting Rights Act.

“The most significant— or the biggest part of this bill— is the Native American Voting Rights Act,” Duhigg said. “As you all know, Native Americans have only had the right to vote in New Mexico for 74 years. And while we recognize the courage and perseverance of (Native Americans), we must also recognize our role in disenfranchising native voters in New Mexico and the long way we have to go in eliminating double standards for our states original inhabitants.”

More: Voting rights expansion passes House

The Native American Voting Rights Act also helps with barriers Native Americans may have when they vote.

The bill seeks to align “precinct boundaries so that they honor the existing political boundaries of tribes and pueblos by requiring translation services at the polls, allowing voters living on tribal lands to designate tribal government buildings as mailing addresses to facilitate absentee voting, and giving tribal governments more ability to administer elections in ways that makes sense for their communities honoring local expertise and tribal sovereignty,” Duhigg said.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, offered a floor substitute that included an update to the Native American Voting Rights Act which included broadcasting in native languages of nations, tribes and pueblos and allows the nations, tribes and pueblos to determine their own precinct and polling locations.

Duhigg found the floor amendment’s contents intriguing.

“I’ll say I think there are actually some interesting ideas in here that, had I seen them at anytime before we were in the middle of the floor debate on the bill, I probably would have been interested in integrating them into the bill and I’d be happy to work in the next session on continuing to bolster our Native American Voting Rights Act,” Duhigg said. “But at this time, this is unfriendly because it would deprive New Mexico voters of all the other protections in the bill.”

The floor substitute failed on a 14 to 27 vote.

A facet of the bill that prompted criticism from Republicans was the voluntary permanent absentee voter list which allows people to choose to sign up to be put on a list to receive an absentee ballot through the mail for each election. Currently, voters must request an absentee ballot for each election.

Under the permanent absentee voter provision, a voter would fall off the list if they did not vote in two consecutive elections.

Restoring the right to vote for felons released from prison and updating the process for automatic voter registration so that it is an opt in process rather than an opt out process were also discussed. 

The issue with the opt-in-opt-out question is that some religious faiths reject involvement in politics. 

With the opt-out, the person being registered to vote when they get their driver’s license renewed at a Motor Vehicle Division office can opt out when they receive a card in the mail or simply not vote, Duhigg said.

During the bill’s debate, Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, said that he had been in contact with lawyers for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which are a faith that remains politically neutral based on biblical teachings.

There was also discussion about the monitored, secured ballot drop boxes. The boxes are monitored by motion sensor video surveillance which are public records. The boxes are also anchored to the ground to prevent theft, Duhigg said.

The discussions included four proposed floor amendments to HB 4 that would have changed or deleted parts of the bill. Each of these failed to pass..

The bill now heads back to the House for concurrence since the bill was amended in committee. If the bill is signed into law, the bill would go into effect January 1, 2024.

Update: The House voted to concur with changes on Mar. 13 and sent the bill to the governor’s desk.