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Amid procedural fights, House passes voter-registration bill

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Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the University of New Mexico last year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

SANTA FE — New Mexicans would be automatically registered to vote when they get their driver’s license or ID at the Motor Vehicle Division — unless they specifically opt out — under legislation that passed the House late Tuesday.

Approval of the bill came after three hours of intense debate and procedural skirmishes.

Republicans repeatedly tried and failed to amend the proposal.

Democrats, in turn, tried unsuccessfully to close debate on the measure early, triggering howls of protest from GOP lawmakers.

The motion to end debate after an hour — rather than the typical three hours — failed in any case.

Tuesday’s flare up centered on House Bill 84, which would revise voter-registration procedures at MVD offices.

Right now, drivers can “opt in” and be registered to vote, but the bill would change that to an “opt out” — meaning people who are qualified to vote would be registered automatically, unless they deliberately decline.

It ultimately passed on an 44-22 vote and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Republicans vigorously opposed the measure and raised the prospect of ineligible people being added to the voter rolls, especially immigrants living in the country illegally.

Democrats, in turn, said adequate safeguards are in place to thwart unqualified voters. County clerks review new voter registrations and remove anyone who isn’t eligible to vote, state election officials said.

The bill also directs the Secretary of State’s Office to conduct an annual audit to verify that people on the rolls are qualified to vote and direct county clerks to remove any ineligible voters.

The debate triggered a tense moment, as Democrats moved to close debate after about an hour.

“This is inappropriate,” House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, protested.

Under House rules, there’s typically a three-hour limit for debate on any one piece of legislation. After three hours, a simple majority vote can be used to close debate and have a final vote on the bill.

The rules also provide a second way to end debate, with no requirement for the full three hours. But such a motion requires approval from two-thirds of the members.

Democrats fell one vote short Tuesday of the required two-thirds. At least one Democratic lawmaker, Candie Sweetser of Deming, opposed the move to end debate.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have floated the idea of changing House rules to allow for shorter debates, but no one has made such a proposal yet.

Tuesday’s procedural clash underscored an ongoing dispute this session between House Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans say Democrats are trying to stifle debate and rushing to pass legislation without enough vetting.

Democrats, in turn, have accused Republicans of abusing the rules and using stall tactics because they know they’re outnumbered.

Democrats picked up eight seats in the House in last year’s general election, pushing their majority to 46-24.

Approval of the voter-registration bill came about 10:35 p.m. Tuesday, and the House immediately began debating the next proposal on the agenda, continuing to work deep into the night.

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