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Governor considers Election Day voter registration

A woman walks to the polling place at Daskalos Plaza to vote in 2017’s mayoral election. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico could boost its voter turnout by a few percentage points under legislation awaiting action by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, analysts say.

The proposal – passed in the final days of the 2019 session – would clear the way for New Mexicans to register to vote at early-voting sites and on Election Day. The changes would be phased in, with Election Day registration taking effect in time for the 2022 election cycle.

Academic studies have found strong evidence that same-day registration increases voter turnout, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The effect is in the range of a 3 to 7 percent increase in voter turnout.

“I think it could have a significant impact in high-profile election years where there’s a lot of energy and excitement to go to the polls,” Brian Sanderoff of Research & Polling Inc. said in an interview.

In New Mexico, the voter rolls now close four weeks before Election Day. Anyone who registers after that date can’t participate until the following election cycle.

Senate Bill 672 – co-sponsored by three Democratic legislators – would phase in same-day registration for statewide elections. The governor has until April 5 to decide whether to approve the proposal.

It would allow people to register to vote during the 28-day blackout period, under certain circumstances. They could go to the county clerk’s office and could register up to the Saturday before the election.

Counties would have the option of allowing voter registration at early-voting sites, too. But they would have to staff each site with a clerk’s office employee to serve as the registrar.

Voters would be permitted to register and cast their ballots immediately.

The rules would go into effect this year, though no statewide election is scheduled until 2020.

Registration on Election Day itself would be permitted for statewide elections after that – the first of which is scheduled in 2022.

Voters could also use the same-day registration system to update their voter information, but they would be prohibited from changing their party affiliation during a primary election.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said the phase-in period allows county clerks to prepare for the change.

“I think it’s a good model,” he said in an interview. “It’s an opportunity to roll this out in a way that makes sense.”

Lawmakers passed the proposal largely along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

Opponents questioned whether the legislation would be an administrative burden on county clerks, among other concerns.

Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, said a voter who isn’t engaged enough to register by the four-week deadline may not have a good handle on what’s on the ballot.

“I don’t know if they’d understand the topics, the subjects, even the difference in candidates,” Gallegos said during the House debate. “There’s a lot of issues there that take a lot more of a deep dive into the topic than just a spur-of-the-moment vote.”

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, strongly supported the bill. Her office said protections are in place to keep people from voting at more than one location.

Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, said that reducing administrative barriers to voting isn’t a “panacea” but can contribute to increased turnout.

“Candidates and campaigns are really what mobilizes voters, not election administration,” she said.

Studies reveal no conclusive evidence that same-day registration affects partisan outcomes or benefits particular demographics, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Seventeen states already allow same-day registration, including Utah and Colorado, according to the council.

It’s unclear how campaigns might respond to the change, New Mexico analysts said.

Campaigns generally focus on turning out their base of supporters, Atkeson said, so someone who isn’t registered yet may be a lesser priority.

Sanderoff said campaigns might pitch the idea of a “one-stop shop” for, say, college students – encouraging them to register and cast their ballot on the same visit to a voting location.

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