SANTA FE — A year after a GOP filibuster killed the bill, New Mexico lawmakers pushed toward final passage Wednesday of legislation that would automate some voter registration and take other steps intended to make it easier to cast a ballot.
The proposal — a priority of Democratic legislative leaders — won Senate approval on a 27-14 vote Wednesday after almost three hours of debate, sending the bill back to the House for agreement on amendments made in a Senate committee.
Sen. Katy Duhigg, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, described the measure as a critical step toward protecting and expanding voting rights in a state that ranks in the bottom 10 for voter registration per capita.
The 47-page bill is designed, she said, to strengthen access to the polls on tribal land, streamline the restoration of felons’ voting rights and automate voter registration during some Motor Vehicle Division transactions.
It would also establish a permanent absentee voting list and set out requirements for ballot drop boxes.
Adoption of the bill comes as some states push to tighten election laws, and the report of armed watchers at ballot drop boxes in Arizona raised concerns about intimidation.
“Our sacred right to vote is under threat,” Duhigg said. “This is a bill that provides necessary and important updates to our election code.”
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Roswell Republican who opposed the bill, said New Mexico already makes it easy to participate in elections.
“I don’t believe anybody was prevented from voting that wanted to,” he said.
Wednesday’s approval comes just over a year after a Republican filibuster killed a similar bill in the final hours of the 30-day legislative session in 2022. But Democratic lawmakers had time on their side this time, advancing the measure at a steady pace throughout this year’s 60-day session.
This year’s bill is less expansive than some versions of the legislation that circulated last year. It doesn’t call for allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote, for example, as last year’s bill did at one point.
One final step is necessary to send this year’s measure to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — House approval of Senate amendments to the bill, largely technical changes.
It isn’t unusual for the two chambers to pass slightly different versions of a bill, then work out their differences or just agree to the other’s changes.
Senate approval was granted along party lines, with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans present opposed.
Parts of Wednesday’s debate focused on a provision in the bill phasing in automatic voter registration during certain MVD transactions, such as when a person presents documents proving citizenship while applying for a driver’s license.
The newly registered voters would be told they’ve been added to the voter rolls and that they’ll get a postcard in the mail allowing them to decline the registration.
New Mexico now has an opt-in system at MVD offices, rather than the proposal for an opt out.
But Republicans said it made no sense to register someone over their objection, especially for people whose religion prohibits political participation. Their attempts to revise that part of the bill failed.
Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said people who want to register to vote already have plenty of options — online, at the polls, elsewhere.
“We’ve made it as easy as it could possibly be,” he said. “I don’t understand why we want to force this on people.”
Duhigg said MVD customers who opt out through the post card will be treated as if they were never registered in the first place.
Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, described the bill as a critical step toward safeguarding the voting rights of all New Mexicans. It includes a Native American Voting Rights Act intended to better coordinate access to the polls on tribal land.
As a Native American woman, Pinto said, there were times in state history when she wouldn’t have been allowed to vote, much less serve in the Senate.
“I think it’s very important to make sure we continue to make progress and make sure the voices are heard for all people,” Pinto said.
Throughout a combative debate, Republicans repeatedly assailed the bill as partisan legislation that didn’t reflect their ideas. They sometimes spoke in favor of the Native American voting sections of the bill while opposing other sections.
The bill would:
— Allow voters to sign up once to get absentee ballots before every election.
— Restore the voting rights of felons when they leave custody rather than after they complete probation or parole.
— Require each county to have at least two secured, monitored boxes for people to drop off absentee ballots. State election officials could issue a waiver if the boxes weren’t practical in a county for security or geographic reasons.
— Make Election Day a school holiday.
— Automate some voter registration at MVD offices.
— Establish a Native American Voting Rights Act.