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New Mexico lawmakers contemplate election-security measures

March 1, 2023 GMT
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A pedestrian exits the New Mexico state Capitol building amid winter weather on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M. A panel of New Mexico House lawmakers endorsed a $1 billion increase in annual state general fund spending to raise public salaries, shore up rural health care networks and expand no-pay day care and college. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
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A pedestrian exits the New Mexico state Capitol building amid winter weather on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M. A panel of New Mexico House lawmakers endorsed a $1 billion increase in annual state general fund spending to raise public salaries, shore up rural health care networks and expand no-pay day care and college. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE. N.M. (AP) — New Mexico legislators are contemplating a long list of new security safeguards in response to drive-by shootings on the homes of lawmakers in Albuquerque, threats against election officials and anxiety about firearms at polling sites.

The initiatives would remove home addresses of some elected officials from government websites, provide felony sanctions for intimidation of election regulators, suspend disruptive poll observers and ban firearms at polling places with few exceptions.

With House votes pending on several election-security measures, Democratic House Speaker Javier Martínez favors changes.

“The trust that many of us had has been broken a little bit,” Martínez said. “The people who have to go work in these polling locations, I feel, are already underpaid, overworked, underappreciated. I don’t know why we would put them in positions where they feel vulnerable.”

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One bill would protect election officials, from the secretary of state to county and municipal elections clerks, from intimidation — defined as inducing or attempting to induce fear. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver last year reported threats against her to the FBI and went into hiding previously, while county clerks have reported threats and harassment in recent years.

A violation would be punishable as a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison. The state Senate endorsed the proposal on 38-0 vote, with House deliberations now pending.

Another bill would allow elected and appointed government officials to designate their home address as confidential on election and financial disclosure forms, prohibiting publication on government websites or disclosure through public records requests.

That measure was introduced by a Republican lawmaker and supporters include Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque. Police say a gunman fired multiple rounds from a pistol into Lopez’s home, where her 10-year-old daughter was sleeping — during a series of drive-by shootings in December and January at the homes of Democratic elected officials in Albuquerque.

“I understand the issue on transparency, but the day and time that we’re in, we really have to rethink what we are doing,” said Lopez, who voted in favor of confidential addresses.

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Prosecutors allege the attacks in Albuquerque were orchestrated by an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the New Mexico House, Solomon Peña, who had refused to accept his loss in last fall’s election. Police say Peña hired four people to shoot at the homes of four Democratic lawmakers. Peña has pleaded not guilty.

There were no injuries, but the attacks provided a violent reminder that the false claims about a stolen election persist in posing a danger to public officials and democratic institutions.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said that confidential addresses would make it more difficult to confirm whether candidates and elected officials live in the district they claim to represent. Property records would still provide public information about home ownership, though not necessarily residency.

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“How do you know that the elected individual lives in the district in which they are registered?” Majors said. “We believe that information should be public.”

Other states including Oklahoma allow judicial officials to keep home addresses confidential.

A New Mexico elections bill from Democratic state Sens. Katy Duhigg of Albuquerque and Leo Jaramillo of Espanola would require training for election watchers and challengers who observe voting activities. Observes removed for minor breeches of conduct would have to sit out the next election cycle too.

Poll challengers and watchers have traditionally functioned as an essential element of electoral transparency at polling locations, acting as the eyes and ears of major political parties to help ensure that the mechanics of voting are administered fairly and accurately. But election regulators in several states have grown weary of aggressive poll watchers.

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Leading Democratic legislators also are backing a bill to prohibit firearms at all New Mexico polling places during elections, with exceptions for law enforcement and privately contracted security. Under current state law, firearms can be carried openly or with a concealed handgun permit at voting locations that aren’t on school grounds.

The bill passed the state Senate on a 28-9 vote that divided Republicans, with some arguing that concealed weapons make polling places safer.

New Mexico would join at least 12 other states that prohibit guns and weapons at polling places, including neighboring Texas and Arizona.