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New Mexico voting bill stalls in Democratic-led Legislature

Protesters for an array of causes gather at the entrance of the New Mexico state Capitol building at the opening day of a 30-day legislative session in the House of Representatives in Santa Fe on Jan. 18. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

SANTA FE – A state Senate panel delayed action Friday for a second time on a Democrat-backed bill to expand voting access in New Mexico with provisions to further automate voter registration, streamline mail-in voting, turn Election Day into a state holiday and more.

A nine-hour legislative hearing was marked by fiery public comments and a marathon debate about components of the bill that offer voter registration as people leave prison without completing probation or parole, automate voter registration at state motor vehicle offices and distribute mail-in ballots year-after-year to people who prefer them. Currently, absentee ballots are available by request only for each election.

A provision that would have allowed 16-year-olds to participate in local elections including school boards was stripped from the bill on a 6-5 committee vote.

Republican legislators sought to derail other major provisions of the bill with amendments that were voted down. Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque objected to new automated voter registration provisions, noting that New Mexico already offers same-day registration at voting locations.

Ivey-Soto, chairman of Friday’s committee hearing and a consultant to local governments on election administration, adjourned the meeting abruptly without a vote, leaving the bill in limbo.

Amid a 30-day legislative session, lawmakers have until Feb. 17 to send the bill to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who backs the initiative along with Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and leading Democrats in the legislative majority.

“It’s a big bill. The fight for voting rights is long and hard,” Toulouse Oliver said. “It would be nice to move it forward.”

GOP Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen warned that the bill would restore voting rights to felons before their debts are fully paid to society.

Republican Sens. Mark Moores of Albuquerque and Cliff Pirtle of Roswell slammed the proposal to automate voter registration with transactions at motor vehicle offices, arguing it would infringe upon rights of privacy and freedom of religion in select instances.

Toulouse Oliver offered assurances that people could opt out of the registration process at motor vehicle offices or by returning a follow-up post card with postage pre-paid. The state also allows people who are under threat to keep their address confidential while still receiving voting related mail.

During a public comment period, a long list of advocates for greater access to voting urged legislators to advance the bill to reduce logistical and economic barriers to voting. They included youth advocates for climate justice; advocates for Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ communities; and people with disabilities who find in-person voting arduous or impossible.

Dozens of people criticized the bill, arguing it would invite tampering with registration rolls and undermine confidence in election results. They included several Republicans running for public office, along with an advocate for the outside review of voting records by private contractors.

At least 19 states have enacted voting restrictions since the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The national GOP campaign to tighten voting laws has been partly driven by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.