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Election procedures bill advances out of Senate committee


From left, Sens. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City, and Gregory Baca, R-Belen, talk on the Senate floor on Thursday, the opening day of a special session at the Roundhouse (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill authorizing new election procedures for New Mexico’s 2020 general election advanced Thursday, but only after a Senate committee stripped out a key provision dealing with voting by mail.

In its initial form, Senate Bill 4 would have allowed county clerks to mail ballots to voters in early October, even without voters first requesting an absentee ballot, as is currently required.

But critics claimed that provision could lead to voting irregularities, and two Democratic senators who were defeated in this month’s primary election – Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces – ultimately joined with four Republicans to amend it out of the bill.

Sen. Gregory Baca, R-Belen, said the bill as initially drafted would have removed voter fraud safeguards by allowing for ballots to be mailed directly to voters without being requested.

“If we have erroneous ballots being cast, I think that negates an accurate count,” Baca said during a Thursday hearing of the Senate Rules Committee.

He also said the proposed system could be more expensive to administer and lead to longer waits for voting results.

However, backers argued the change would give county clerks the flexibility to decide how to run this year’s election with the pandemic still possibly looming over the state.

“I think the committee showed a lack of trust in our county election officials,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing.

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that supports expanded mail-in voting, also lamented the change, saying county clerks should have the ability to make decisions based on the needs of their local voters.

Five states already mail a ballot – not a ballot application – to all voters, though the states vary in how much in-person voting they also offer, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But mail-in voting has faced resistance in New Mexico, as the state Supreme Court in April rejected a petition from 27 county clerks to allow the primary election to be conducted largely by mail.

As part of its ruling, the Supreme Court ordered election officials throughout New Mexico to mail absentee applications to every eligible voter before the election.

New Mexico ended up having a historic turnout for the primary election, as more than 417,000 voters – or about 42% of those eligible to vote – cast ballots, according to unofficial results.

Nearly 267,000 of those who voted did so via absentee ballot, after Toulouse Oliver and other top state officials urged eligible voters to use the option in order to reduce person-to-person contact.

Under the bill approved Thursday after being amended, county clerks could still decide to send out absentee ballot applications in advance of the Nov. 3 general election or just leave it up to voters to decide a voting method.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the lead sponsor of the bill, said he was disappointed by the amendment but said the bill still contains positive elements.

That includes allowing absentee ballot applications to be sent out earlier than currently allowed and requiring a bar code system be used on envelopes of mail-in ballots in order to track them.

“This enhances security and it does not disenfranchise anybody,” Ivey-Soto said.

However, the bill would not extend the current deadline for absentee ballots to be received.

Under current law, ballots must be received by the time polls close on Election Day in order to be counted.

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