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State employees ask judge for time off to vote

SANTA FE – Two state employees in Albuquerque are asking a judge to order Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to grant state employees paid time off so they can vote in municipal elections.

The employees, Dan Secrist and Ken Long, are also seeking damages for lost wages or vacation time to compensate any state workers who didn’t get paid leave to vote in Tuesday’s election.

They accused the State Personnel Office of violating state rules and city and state election codes.

The state, in turn, contends that municipal elections aren’t covered by the policy allowing time off to vote. Furthermore, it would cost $1.2 million to pay every state employee for two hours to vote, or about $312,000 for just the employees who live in Albuquerque, according to the Martinez administration.

“The taxpayers of New Mexico should not have to foot the bill to pay state employees to do their civic duty.” Martinez spokesman Larry Behrens said.

The issue could come to the forefront next month – when Albuquerque will hold a runoff election to choose a mayor and fill a City Council seat.

Secrist, who works at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, said the state has always allowed workers to take paid time off in city elections, at least during his 16 years as an employee.

Now, he said, the administration is trying to discourage voter turnout.

“It could be enough to tip the outcome of a city election,” Secrist said.

Turnout was 29 percent in this week’s election, with early voting having started in mid-September and absentee ballots having been made available at the end of August.

A state law allows voters to leave work for two hours on Election Day to cast their ballots, though the employer can specify when it’s OK for the voter to leave.

The law also says the voter “shall not be liable for any penalty” because of the absence.

A state policy has similar language, but it says employees aren’t eligible if their work shift already gives them plenty of time to vote in their off time on Election Day.

At one point, under Martinez, the policy made clear that paid time off was allowed for municipal elections, but the latest version – issued in 2014 – doesn’t specifically address the topic of city elections, according to the lawsuit.

State Elections Director Kari Fresquez – who works under Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver – issued an opinion last month saying state employees should have access to paid leave on Election Day.