By Daniel J. Chacón/Santa Fe New Mexican
New Mexicans would be automatically registered to vote when they do business at the Motor Vehicle Division, and the voting rights of convicted felons would be automatically restored the day they get out of prison under a bill that cleared its final legislative committee Monday.
House Bill 4, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, heads next to the full Senate. If it passes the Senate, it will need to return to the House for a concurrence vote on amendments before reaching the governor's desk.
If Monday's hearing is any indication, the bill will likely encounter stiff opposition from Republicans on the floor.
While Republicans are outnumbered in both chambers of the Legislature, a similar bill died in a filibuster in the Senate in the final hours of last year's legislative session.
"This has already been precooked and predetermined, and as knows, I'm very disappointed in that," said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.
"We had an opportunity last year to do something bipartisan to make our republic stronger," Moores said. "But the advocates wanted to be able to leave here and high-five each other and say, 'We did it.' Let us hope they remember that years from now when our republic is weaker — if we still have a republic — they can tell their grandchildren what it was once like to live in a republic."
Supporters of the bill say it is designed to expand access to the ballot box.
"Despite recent progress in strengthening voting opportunities for New Mexicans, New Mexico still lags behind most other states in our percentage of citizens who are registered to vote and the folks who actually go exercise that right at election time," Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, who is among the Democrats sponsoring the bill, told the committee.
"That tells us that we still have more work to do and that's why House Bill 4, New Mexico Voting Rights Act, is before you today," she said.
In addition to enacting automatic voter registration and automatically registering convicted felons upon their release from incarceration, even if they're still on parole, the bill would create a permanent absentee voter list and make Election Day a state holiday.
While proponents of the bill contend it will make voting easier, opponents argue it would compromise election integrity.
"Having a permanent voter absentee list will exponentially increase the number of ballots that are going to be mailed to people that no longer live at an address, may no longer be in our state or have been deceased," said Larry Sonntag, a member of the Better Together New Mexico advocacy group.
"The automatic voter registration portions of this bill are also very problematic," he added. "It opens the opportunity for residents of our state who may not be here legally to be automatically registered to vote."
Toulouse Oliver has said the state already has safeguards to prevent undocumented residents from registering to vote.
Implementation of automatic voter registration would be delayed if the bill is signed into law.
"That won't go into effect until July 1, 2025," Toulouse Oliver said in an interview. "The reason for that is we are in the process of doing system enhancements on our voter registration and election management system, so we would have to sideline these much-needed improvements that clerks need right now to implement a new process. We're just saying, 'Just give us time to get the work done so that it can be done right.' "
Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen questioned whether county clerks across New Mexico had been consulted. He said he had a letter from an affiliate of county clerks opposing the bill.
"They're the ones that have to actually administer these elections that you're proposing here. Doesn't it trouble you at all that they're opposing this?" he asked Duhigg, who noted two county clerks had testified in favor of the bill Monday.
"There's certainly disagreement amongst the clerks, but ... I would also note that we have a different job from the clerks," she said. "They are our election administrators. We are the policymakers."
Duhigg's response didn't sit well with Baca.
"Thank you for that explanation. I really appreciate it because I had no idea," he told Duhigg, who said she didn't mean her response to be "patronizing."
Toulouse Oliver said some county clerks support the bill, while others do not.
"They run the gamut from political to administrative reasons," she said. "Obviously, we would wish to have every single county clerk in the state on board. At the end of the day, I just know my job is, if this bill passes, that we can give the clerks all the tools they need to be able to administer this effectively."
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