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NM moving toward same-day voter registration

Lina Barnes, 6, waits as her father, Jesse Barns, casts his ballot Monday at the County Clerk’s Annex near Downtown. New Mexico is phasing in same-day voter registration beginning this year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico will soon join 20 other states in allowing voters to register on Election Day, but the change is being gradually phased in and won’t take full effect until 2021.

For this year’s local election cycle, voters can register to vote or change their registration through Nov. 2 – the Saturday before Election Day – and a similar system will be in place for statewide elections next year.

Although local elections typically draw a lower turnout, more than 300 voters had taken advantage of the pushed-back registration date through Monday afternoon, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

“We’re seeing some small numbers across the state,” said Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who said the phase-in had been going smoothly so far.

All 33 county clerks are providing the extended voter registration this year, though only three counties – Bernalillo, Doña Ana and Sandoval – have decided to offer the option at all early voting sites.

In other counties, with early voting now underway, voters can register to vote – or update their registration – only at county clerks’ offices.

“We’re going to see how the big counties do,” said Lea County Clerk Keith Manes, who said some county clerks were initially concerned about the state’s readiness to make such a big change.

Up until this year, New Mexico had set a deadline to register to vote at 28 days before an election.

Toulouse Oliver said that recent technological advances – including a statewide voter database that can be updated in seconds – make such a deadline unnecessary.

“That 28-day period made a lot of sense when you had to prepare (voter) rosters by hand,” Toulouse Oliver said in a Monday interview. “Because we’ve got the technology and we’re able to do it securely, it makes a lot more sense now than it would have in the past.”

Lawmakers approved the same-day voter registration bill during the final days of this year’s 60-day legislative session, after similar proposals failed to gain traction in previous years. The measure was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in March.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat next year, led the charge for same-day voter registration, arguing it would increase voter participation in a state that has received low ratings for political engagement. She has also said the state’s old law sometimes led to voters showing up to vote but being unable to cast ballots due to registration glitches.

The secretary of state said Monday that the gradual phase-in of the new law is allowing county clerks time to make plans and address any glitches that may come up before Election Day voter registration takes effect in 2021.

By that year, county clerks will be required to provide the same-day voter registration option at all polling places.

Some critics of same-day voter registration claim the practice can open the door to voter fraud, but Manes said Monday that any new voters registering after the traditional deadline have to show a driver’s license or similar identification.

Manes said allowing voter registration up until Election Day will require at least one additional staffer in each Lea County polling place.

Twenty-one states have enacted same-day voter registration laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Along with New Mexico, both Nevada and Washington have adopted such a change in the past two years.

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