Voter-access bill advances in New Mexico Legislature

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A Democrat-backed bill to expand voting access in New Mexico received a crucial endorsement Monday from a Senate panel, reviving prospects for legislative approval.

The committee voted 7-4 along party lines on a bill that would make Election Day a holiday to encourage voting, streamline mail-in voting and further automate voter registration procedures at state government offices.

The bill also would provide convicted felons with the opportunity to register to vote as they exit prison. New Mexico already allows felons to vote, with obstacles to register. They have to complete their sentence, parole or probation.

A least one more committee vetting lies ahead before the bill can reach a Senate vote to possibly pass to the House for consideration. Lawmakers have until Feb. 17 to approve legislation during a rapid-fire 30-day legislative session.

The initiative from legislators including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe has the support of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who both are running for reelection this year.

Wirth says New Mexico has an obligation to bolster access to voting as Republican-led states including neighboring Texas impose new restrictions on ballot access, with federal voting rights legislation stalled in Congress.

Republicans say the bill would undermine precautions against election cheating and undermine public confidence in election results, urging further vetting and amendments.

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.

The proposed voting reforms in New Mexico would expand the availability of monitored ballot drop boxes and create a permanent absentee voter list, allowing voters to receive absentee ballots for each election without repeatedly requesting them.

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

About 35% of 2020 voters voted by mail in 2020, up from less than 10% in 2016, according to a state-sponsored study from the University of New Mexico. About 45% of Democratic voters cast ballots by mail — at roughly twice the rate of Republicans.

The voting bill also would allow registration with the use of student identification documents from an accredited college or university. In-person voter registration would be extended to Election Day rather than the Saturday before.