Saturday, August 28, 2004
Voters Must Show IDs, Judge Says
By Andy Lenderman
Journal Politics Writer
Tens of thousands of New Mexico voters would be required to show identification before voting Nov. 2 under an order Friday by a state District Court judge in Albuquerque.
The two sides in a lawsuit over voter identification issues disagreed on broader meanings of the judge's temporary restraining order for election officials. The order has not been finalized, and the factions were expected to resume arguments again Monday morning in a case that could end up before the state Supreme Court.
But the ruling issued by District Judge Robert L. Thompson could ultimately affect how state election law is interpreted statewide this fall.
The ruling was hailed by Republicans as a means of fighting perceived voter fraud in what's expected to be a close presidential election.
"I applaud this ruling that state law must be followed with respect to voter identification," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said in a prepared statement issued from Washington after the ruling in Albuquerque. "This minimal ID requirement will help eliminate fraud and ensure that every honest vote counts in November."
Democrats said requiring identification is just a way to inconvenience people new to the voting process and possibly intimidate them from getting involved.
"This is the Republican Party trying to throw a monkey wrench into the registration process," said John Boyd, a lawyer for the Democratic Party of New Mexico, who intervened in the case Friday morning.
At issue is whether newly registered voters in New Mexico must show identification before voting excepting people who register to vote in person at a county clerk's office.
Currently, only new voters who register by mail must show identification before voting.
A lawsuit filed earlier this month seeks to expand those identification requirements.
Five citizens, represented by prominent Republican attorneys, filed the suit on Aug. 20, naming Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron and Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera as defendants.
The plaintiffs, seeking a temporary restraining order, asked the court to enforce their interpretation of existing state law arguing that all new voters, with the exception of in-person registrants, must show identification before voting.
"The statute really is clear on its face," Thompson said from the bench Friday morning. "My feeling is that it's not ambiguous.
"In today's time, we're all finding that every vote counts. If you don't enforce the statute in its clear meaning, I think ... any voter could be disenfranchised."
The law cited by the Republican attorneys reads: "If the form is not submitted in person by the applicant and the applicant is registering for the first time in New Mexico, the applicant must submit with the form a copy of a current and valid photo identification, utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document that shows the name and address of the applicant; and the applicant must submit the required identification when he votes in person or absentee in person."
Plaintiff's lawyer Pat Rogers said 16 states require some form of voter identification.
About 78,000 new voters have registered in New Mexico since Jan. 1, according to the state Bureau of Elections. Thompson's order would cover those people and more, lawyers said.
Many of those newly registered voters have been signed on by non-profit groups or so-called 527 political groups that work to enlist voters.
Often, Republican lawyers argued Friday, those organizers drop off sacks of completed registration forms at county clerks' offices.
Those new voters should present identification before voting, the lawyers argued, in order to prevent possible voter fraud.
Assistant Attorney General Dave Thomson, defending the state, cited federal and state laws that allow people to be registered to vote through a voter registration drive or through a third party.
"This lawsuit involves the debate over whether registering in front of a person outside a shopping mall should be treated as a subset of registering 'in person' (secretary of state's view) or subset of registering 'by mail' (plaintiff's view)," Thompson wrote.
"It is important to consider that any remedy this court provides restricts and does not expand the ability of people to vote," he added.
Republican lawmakers have for years sought passage of voter identification measures in the Legislature. Democrats have opposed them, saying they could deter or intimidate minorities from voting.
The state Attorney General's office said Friday that the District Court ruling applied to Bernalillo County only, with possible statewide ramifications.
Plaintiff's attorney Rogers responded, "There are some details to work out but that's not one of them. It's going to apply statewide."
The case could play out in state District Court or go to the state Supreme Court at this point, according to Caroline Buerkle, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Patricia Madrid.
"We're weighing our options and we'll wait for the order on Monday before we make any decisions," Buerkle said.