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Senate approves voting rights expansion with broad support for Native ballot access

HB 4 sponsor Democratic Sen. Katy Duhigg introduces the bill on the Senate floor on March 8, 2023. The bill passed the chamber and now heads back to the House to approve its Senate committee amendments.
New Mexico Legislature
HB 4 sponsor Democratic Sen. Katy Duhigg introduces the bill on the Senate floor on March 8, 2023. The bill passed the chamber and now heads back to the House to approve its Senate committee amendments.

The Senate passed a wide-ranging bill Wednesday to expand voting rights in New Mexico with Republicans in opposition. A similar bill stalled on the Senate floor last year after a Republican filibuster.

House Bill 4would create the Native American Voting Rights Act, which its sponsor, Democratic Sen. Katy Duhigg, said is the biggest part of the bill.

“Tribal communities still face structural barriers to exercising the right to vote, with poor rural addressing, long travel times, inconsistent translation services and low broadband connectivity,” she said as she introduced the measure on the Senate floor. “This bill addresses this reality.”

It was the one provision that didn’t have significant Republican pushback. In fact, hours into the debate, Republican Sen. Bill Sharer — who led last year’s filibuster — proposed a failed substitute that would have more or less only addressed Indigenous voting rights.

“Now this is an up or down vote on the Native American Voting Rights Act,” he said as he outlined the substitute bill. “It’s just that simple. It’s not a lot of other things.”

He expressed disappointment when it was debated only briefly and told his colleagues that he thought it would have garnered unanimous support.

HB 4 passed on a 27-14 vote with Republicans in opposition. Debate centered on the bill’s other provisions, including the creation of an automatic voter registration system through the MVD. Voters would opt out of being registered rather than having to opt in.

Several Republican legislators expressed concern on behalf of people who object to political engagement based on religious beliefs. Republican Sen. David Gallegos cited the concerns of his Jehovah's Witness constituents specifically.

Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, who told her colleagues she grew up in the religion, said the bill does not violate its teachings since no one would be forced to participate in an election.

Duhigg explained that the bill would make it as if a person never registered once they elect to opt out.

“Something conflicting with your beliefs doesn’t mean you’re never put in a position of telling someone that,” Duhigg told her Republican colleagues. “If you get called up for jury duty and it conflicts with your beliefs, you can go there and say that. If you’re securely automatically registered to vote, and it conflicts with your beliefs, then you can opt out of it.”

An amendment introduced by Republican Sen. David Gallegos that would have maintained the opt-in nature of the current system failed.

Another part of the bill Republican senators objected to was the creation of a list to always receive an absentee ballot. New Mexico voters would only need to apply once to be added to it.

Republican Sen. Crystal Diamond wanted to ensure the application for the list could only be sent to voters by county clerks or the Secretary of State’s Office. That amendment also failed. So, third parties will be able to distribute the application if the bill becomes law.

Under the proposal, New Mexico will become the latest state to allow people getting out of prison for a felony to re-register to vote right then and there, rather than when they finish their probation or parole. Duhigg said the existing process “fundamentally does not work.”

“Folks have to go get all of this paperwork to show that all of their sentence is completed, and the process of getting that paperwork is incredibly dysfunctional,” she said. “So, you have to have this paper to be allowed to re-register to vote, but you can’t get the paper.”

Sharer pushed back against the idea that barriers related to accessing forms require a legislative fix.

“Bureaucracy's not the law,” he said. “Maybe we just need a new Secretary of State.”

Sec. of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has been a major proponent and expert witness on House Bill 4 as it’s moved through the Roundhouse.

Other key components of the measure include making Election Day a school holiday and making an existing rule — that counties must have two drop boxes unless they get a waiver — the law.

The voting rights bill now heads back to the House to approve changes made in the Senate Rules Committee before it can go to the governor’s desk for signature.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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