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Editorial: NM workers should not be paid to do civic duty

A lawsuit that would force the public to pay state employees for time off to vote in municipal elections gives state lawmakers a chance to revisit whether employees should be paid for the time they spend voting.

Current state law allows workers to leave work for two hours on “election day” to cast their ballots – despite the fact they now have weeks to vote absentee or early, and Election Day polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The archaic law, 1-12-42 (A) also says “the voter shall not be liable to any penalty for such absence.” It does not specify whether docking an employee for the time spent voting constitutes a “penalty.” And while subsection (C) includes elections on Indian land and enrolled members of the Indian nation, tribe or pueblo, the law does not further define elections, such as federal, state, municipal, etc.

The state contends municipal elections aren’t covered by the state policy allowing time off to vote.

Two state employees – Dan Secrist, an exhibit fabricator at the state Museum of Natural History and Science, and Ken Long, a highway maintenance worker with the Department of Transportation, recently filed a lawsuit to force the state to pay workers who take time off to vote in municipal elections. Secrist and Long are seeking damages for lost wages or vacation time to compensate any state workers who didn’t get paid time off to vote in Albuquerque’s Oct. 9 municipal elections.

Under that reasoning, they would also want two hours of paid time for all state employees who live in Albuquerque to vote in the Nov. 17 mayoral runoff. And how about the next conservancy district election? And the next flood control authority election? And on, and on.

And that’s just state workers. Under the vague and outdated statute, almost everybody who has a job is eligible for time off to vote in an election, though employers can pick the voting time. (You can’t get time off if your shift starts more than two hours after polls open or ends more than three hours before they close.)

Given the imprecise wording; the many ways purported voters and bureaucrats can parse it; and the fact it creates two classes of voters, the paid and the unpaid, legislators should revamp the law, then ensure state policies comply. The crux of the matter is whether taxpayers and consumers should pay employees to vote during their regular work day. The answer should be a resounding “No.”

It would cost the state $1.2 million to pay every state employee for two hours to vote, and it would cost $312,000 for just those who live in Albuquerque.

The lawsuit begs the question how many employees would skip the ballot box but take the two hours? And how many would vote early or absentee and then take off two hours to “vote” on Election Day? And who on earth would police them? And what will that cost?

In the 2015 November election alone the state found 243 state employees who took paid leave to vote but never did. It took an employee nearly a month to compare Social Security numbers of those who took leave with those in the voter databases and find 42 weren’t even registered and 201 didn’t cast a ballot.

There is simply zero accountability in the system, and this lawsuit promises to compound that.

Voting is a privilege and a civic duty, and every legal New Mexico resident over the age of 18 should register to vote and cast their ballot. But the world has moved on since state law said workers should get time off to vote. Early and absentee voting, extended polling place hours and voting convenience centers have replaced buggy whips. Lawmakers should update the law to show it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.



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