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New Mexico Democrats seek sweeping voting access changes

January 26, 2022 GMT
FILE - New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 29, 2021. New Mexico's governor signed a nearly $500 milling spending bill Tuesday, Dec. 21 that draws on federal pandemic relief funds to expand high-speed internet access, bolster roads, upgrade state parks, expand nurse training programs and help teachers pay off their student debts amid a shortage of educators. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)
FILE - New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 29, 2021. New Mexico's governor signed a nearly $500 milling spending bill Tuesday, Dec. 21 that draws on federal pandemic relief funds to expand high-speed internet access, bolster roads, upgrade state parks, expand nurse training programs and help teachers pay off their student debts amid a shortage of educators. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)
FILE - New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 29, 2021. New Mexico's governor signed a nearly $500 milling spending bill Tuesday, Dec. 21 that draws on federal pandemic relief funds to expand high-speed internet access, bolster roads, upgrade state parks, expand nurse training programs and help teachers pay off their student debts amid a shortage of educators. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A statewide holiday on Election Day to encourage voting. Automated restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts. More time to distribute and count absentee ballots.

Democratic lawmakers have a lengthy wish list in New Mexico as they seek to expand access to voting.

New Mexico’s first and only Black state senator, Harold Pope of Albuquerque, is cosponsoring the legislation with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, during the fast-paced legislative session that started Jan. 18 and ends on Feb. 17.

Here are the key changes sought by Democrats and counterpoints from opponents.

NEW HOLIDAY

More ballots were cast than ever before across New Mexico in the 2020 general election as voters backed President Joe Biden and a Republican challenger flipped a congressional seat in southern New Mexico.

State Democrats including Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver want to increasing voter access by turning Election Day into a state holiday, closing public schools and nonessential government offices for the day.

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A monthlong period for early, in-person voting would be extended to the Sunday before elections, when many people are free of work and chores. Early voting currently begins at county clerks’ offices four weeks ahead of elections, and is expanded three Saturdays before those elections to large-scale voting centers.

And proposed changes would allow 16-year-olds to cast ballots in local elections for mayor and local boards, councils and commissions.

If the measures are approved, high school juniors and seniors would help elect public school board members amid debates about gun safety, vaccination requirements, transgender rights and budgeting.

MAIL-IN VOTING

The state Supreme Court in early 2020 rejected a petition by county clerks to send absentee, mail-in ballots that have not been requested by residents to nearly all registered voters.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Republican Party lawyers convinced justices that absentee ballots should only be available to people who request them.

But the law could change this year as Democratic legislators advocate for the creation of a permanent absentee voter list, allowing voters to receive absentee ballots for each election without repeatedly requesting them.

The Republican Party questions the effort, raising doubts about how the state will properly maintain the absentee voter list and know when people die or move.

SPECIAL POPULATIONS

Proposed legislation would give Native American communities more time to request additional voting sites to ensure access in remote rural areas.

Native Americans experienced new obstacles to reaching voting sites in 2020 amid aggressive pandemic lockdowns by tribal communities that included curfews and police roadblocks aimed at saving lives.

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Separately, proposed election changes would simplify the voter registration process for people convicted of felonies who are not incarcerated.

The bill would drop prohibitions on voting by felons while they are on probation or paroled and provide an automated opportunity for felons to register to vote from prison as they prepare for being released.

COUNTING BALLOTS

The voting rights bill seeks to extend the deadline for accepting marked ballots to 7 p.m. on the Friday after an election, adding three days to allow for postal delays for mailed-in ballots.

State election officials also want to provide more time for county clerks to distribute absentee ballots to voters ahead of elections, giving them 35 days instead of the current 28.

Voter registration opportunities would be expanded for people without driver’s licenses or state ID cards through online registration where voters must list their social security numbers. Republicans Party leaders say that would increase opportunities for deceitful voting.

DISRUPTION

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said that voting rights are under attack across the country, making it important to safeguard access to ballot boxes. The state Republican Party has said the proposed changes open the door to confusion and potential fraud.

At least 19 states — including Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas — have enacted new voting restrictions since the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a group that promotes wider ballot access.

The national GOP campaign to tighten voting laws has been partly driven by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

In Washington, Republican opposition has left a bill that aims to set federal standards for state elections stalled in the 50-50 Senate. Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, a longstanding delaying tactic that can stop a bill in its tracks.