Watered-down version of election reform bill clears Senate panel

A Senate panel significantly watered down a bill late Thursday that aims to streamline the voting-by-mail process if the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing during November’s general election. Senate Bill 4, which is backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, had proposed to allow county clerks to automatically send mail-in ballots to registered voters without requiring people to request them. But after a three-hour debate, the Senate Rules Committee voted to strike that provision from the bill. Under the revised bill, people would still need to apply for absentee ballots before receiving them. Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, proposed the amendment after Republicans on the panel expressed concerns that automatically mailing ballots would put election security at risk.

Secretary of state pushes for temporary automatic mail election

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is advocating for legislation during this week’s special session that would extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots in the November general election and allow county clerks to automatically send ballots to all registered voters prior to Election Day, her office said. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Toulouse Oliver and a couple of dozen county clerks in the state had pushed for a mail-only primary election to protect poll workers and voters from risks of contracting the viral illness. The state Supreme Court rejected the clerks’ request, however, saying the Legislature would have to approve a change in law to allow mass distribution of ballots by mail to voters who haven’t requested one. Spokesman Alex Curtas said Friday the secretary of state still supports an emergency provision allowing ballots to be sent to voters without an application. She also backs other proposals that could streamline the general election, he added.

Secretary of State encourages absentee voting

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver encouraged all voters who wish to participate in the primaries to do so by absentee ballot. Toulouse Oliver spoke at a press conference on Friday, and noted that this election season is different than those in the past. 

Related: State tweaks some aspects of Saturday’s reopening, including more allowed in places of worship

“For me, this would normally be a time as we are going into the early voting period here in New Mexico where I’d be extremely excited and say everyone should turn out in robust fashion to their early voting location,” Toulouse Oliver said. But she said that, given the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone who is eligible “Should be planning on voting from home.”

The state already sent out absentee voter applications to every registered, eligible voter; in New Mexico only those who are members of major political parties can vote in primary elections. Those are the Democratic, Libertarian and Republican parties. Already, Toulouse Oliver said, nearly 130,000 voters have applied to receive absentee ballots.

County clerks ask NM Supreme Court to allow primarily mail-in election

County clerks petitioned the state Supreme Court for an emergency order that would allow the state to move to a primarily mail-in election for the June 2 primary. The clerks, and Secretary of State, say that conditions under the COVID-19 restrictions make it “impossible to lawfully administer” this year’s primary elections. The petition, signed by 27 of the state’s 33 clerks, including five Republicans, said running a regular election would force clerks to decide between following the Election Code or protecting “the health and safety of their community, their voters, their staffs, and themselves.”

To do so, the petition asks for each county clerk to be able to send voters ballots by mail, along with a pre-paid envelope to respond. Voters would still be eligible for replacement of provisional ballots. It would also provide for alternative locations for those who require in-person assistance, such as those with disabilities or those who require language interpretation assistance.

Thousands have requested absentee ballots

Over 5,500 New Mexicans requested absentee ballots as of the afternoon of Wednesday March 25, according to the Secretary of State’s office. That is after her office opened the state’s absentee ballot portal on March 20. 

The launch of the online portal came a month earlier than normal for the June 2 primary elections. New Mexico offers “no-excuse” absentee voting, which means any eligible voter can vote by absentee just by requesting a ballot. Some states don’t have any absentee voting, while others only allow voters to request absentee ballots for certain reasons. The online portal for absentee ballots only began in 2018, so there is not a direct comparison for the numbers this year, in a presidential election year, which has higher turnout than elections without a presidential race on the ballot.

No plans to delay primaries, and SOS encourages vote by mail

At this point, the state of New Mexico is planning on conducting its primary elections in June as originally planned. That’s what Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told NM Political Report Tuesday, even as other states delayed their primaries over fears related to COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus. In fact, changing the election date would require changing the state law. Toulouse Oliver said weeks ago, she was conducting interviews with people lamenting New Mexico’s late primaries. Now, “it’s a tremendous advantage that we have plenty of time to plan and handle this situation,” she said.

Toulouse Oliver ends Senate run

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver announced Tuesday that she is ending her U.S. Senate campaign. The Democrat announced her campaign in April of this year, a month after U.S Sen. Tom Udall announced he would not seek a third term. Toulouse Oliver said she was proud of her campaign and pledged to continue “protecting our elections from outside interference or voter suppression.”

She said her work as the state’s top elections official “protecting our elections from outside interference or voter suppression.”

Toulouse Oliver also endorsed U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, now the lone Democrat in the race. Luján led Toulouse Oliver in fundraising in the most recent quarter. Luján said in a statement of his own that Toulouse Oliver “is a friend.”

“In this campaign, Maggie stood up for our values – like health care for all and addressing the climate crisis,” he said.

As Trump speaks, Democrats rally miles away

While the city of Rio Rancho prepared for President Donald Trump’s appearance in Rio Rancho, Democrats held a unity rally in Old Town Albuquerque at Tiguex Park. Hundreds of supporters listened to Democratic elected officials and others slam Trump and his agenda. They also rejected the idea that Trump could win New mexico and be the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since George W. Bush in 2004. Related: Trump rallies in Rio Rancho, vows to flip NM in 2020

Supporters held signs calling for Trump to be impeached, calling for action on gun violence and to protect abortion access. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller kicked off the event.

Toulouse Oliver releases gun safety plan

A Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful released a gun plan Friday that includes support for an assault weapons ban and universal and expanded background checks. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she also supports enacting red flag laws and raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle to 21. 

“This epidemic has claimed the lives of too many innocent Americans–far too many of them children–and it is well beyond time for Congress to act to protect Americans from the scourge of gun violence,” Toulouse Oliver said in her gun safety plan. “In the U.S. Senate, I will fight for common-sense gun-safety legislation as if my own children’s lives depended on it–because they do.”

Toulouse Oliver cites the rise in mass shootings, including the shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that left more than 30 people dead and dozens more injured, as reasons why to reimplement a ban on assault weapons—and to expand the definition of assault weapons to include AR-15-style guns. When it comes to background checks, Toulouse Oliver says they should extend to all gun purchases—and that such background checks should include information on the online history of the person seeking a background check and extending background checks to close relatives and other members of the household. Toulouse Oliver also calls for restoring funding for researching the effects of gun violence. 

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich has sought to repeal the Dickey Amendment, which bars the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence and its impact on public health.

Could Toulouse Oliver be part of a Senate ‘Squad?”

New Mexico’s primary elections are still more than eight months away, but that hasn’t slowed down candidates for U.S. Senate. Both the Republican and Democratic primaries have multiple candidates already, but arguably the Democratic race is the closest watched so far. 

Democrats will choose between U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is walking away from the high ranking position in U.S. House leadership of Assistant Speaker of the House to run, or Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico’s Secretary of State. Luján has a financial advantage so far and secured endorsements from U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But Toulouse Oliver said she believes New Mexicans care less about what friends in high places think.     

“We have our own local leaders that we look to and we’re very independent-minded,” Toulouse Oliver said.  “While I respect those decisions and respect Congressman Luján for getting that support for himself, I don’t think that it’s going to be even a remotely deciding factor at the end of the day.”  

Pushing the envelope vs. mainstream

Toulouse Oliver didn’t grow up with a high-ranking state legislator as a parent and doesn’t have the institutional knowledge of Congress — two things Luján can boast.