Democrats expected to resurrect voting rights bill killed in last year's session

Jan. 24—A bill advocates contend would make voting more accessible in New Mexico is making a comeback.

The so-called Voting Rights Act is expected to be formally introduced this week after it died by filibuster in the final hours of last year's legislative session.

"As other states are rolling back voting rights and restricting access to the ballot box, New Mexico will continue to work hard to ensure that we remove unnecessary barriers so that all eligible voters can make their voices heard," House Speaker Javier Martínez said at a news conference Tuesday with representatives from various advocacy groups promoting the proposal.

"Our government works better when all people, no matter their walk of life, have a voice in who represents them," he said, adding the provisions of the bill are "critical to safeguarding our democracy."

Although the proposed piece of legislation has not been filed, supporters said it would create a permanent but optional absentee voter list, reinstate voting rights for felons immediately when they get out of prison and make Election Day a state holiday.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who led the push for last year's bill, said she stood in "strong support" of the new bill.

"This legislation, I think, is even better because it has really been spearheaded and brought to life by the advocacy community [that wants] to continue to sort of pick up the ball and continue to move it forward on advancing voting rights here in New Mexico," she said.

Toulouse Oliver said she would offer her technical assistance to ensure the legislation is "done in a way that makes sense for New Mexico election administrators and can be successfully accomplished" as it makes its way through the legislative process. She said she supports the bill for many reasons but "three that are really critical" include restoring the voting rights of formerly incarcerated individuals, protecting access for Native American communities and making vote by mail even more accessible.

The high-profile bill became a major source of controversy last year when a lobbyist accused Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat who is the former chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, of deliberately stalling the legislation after she confronted him about years-old groping allegations, which Ivey-Soto has denied. Ivey-Soto resigned his chairmanship amid calls for his resignation following the accusations from the lobbyist and other women who accused him of inappropriate behavior.

The new chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, is one of the sponsors of the voting rights legislation, along with Martínez and House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque.

Chasey called the bill a "game-changing piece of legislation."

"At its core, it modernizes our elections and empowers our voters, making it easier for thousands of New Mexicans to register and to vote," she said. "There's simply too much at stake for our state and for our country — from reproductive rights to climate change to social justice to our economy — to allow only a portion of our citizens to have a vote."

Ahtza D. Chavez, executive director of NM Native Vote, said the bill includes specific provisions for Native American voters. Some of the "commonsense protections" in the bill include federally mandated language translations during early voting, the use of official tribal buildings as mailing addresses for people who don't have traditional mailing addresses and "tribal input to accommodate tribal preferences" in redistricting, she said.

"New Mexico has been a state since 1912, but our communities, our Native communities, were only granted the right to vote in 1948," she said. "Native Americans face obstacles at every turn throughout the political process. This bill would increase voter participation and access across the state."

Duhigg did not attend the news briefing due to a family emergency but said in a statement the bill would "protect the health of our democracy by helping ensure that here in New Mexico every eligible voter has access to the ballot and that every vote is freely cast and fairly counted."

Duhigg, a former Albuquerque city clerk, is sponsoring a separate elections-related bill that would, among other things, allow electronic signatures for nominating petitions and create an elections security program. Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Toulouse Oliver did not specifically address Duhigg and Jaramillo's Senate Bill 180, but she said she has sounded the alarm "about the very real threats that we are experiencing to our democracy" across the country for the last several years.

"Fortunately, because we continue to lead the way in access and taking these issues very seriously, we are in a good position here in New Mexico," she said.

"But as I also always say, there's always room for improvement," she added. "We can always be doing a better job. We can always be making our elections more secure, more accurate, more fair and expand access, and none of these things are mutually exclusive. We can walk and chew gum at the same time."

While the bill has support from House Democratic leaders and a long list of advocacy organizations that include ProgressNow New Mexico and the Center for Civic Policy, Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, took a wait-and-see approach.

"Last year, we followed the lead of our County Clerks and unanimously passed a bipartisan election bill out of the Senate that strengthened voter rights and improved election security," he said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, that consensus bill was hijacked and derailed in the House by the majority party," Baca added. "Election security and integrity are more important than ever, and we will continue to engage in good faith efforts to make needed changes to our Election Code."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.