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Fight Over Voter ID Heats Up

By Andy Lenderman
Journal Politics Writer
    Past the smoked turkey legs and spiral fries, the Mystery Tunnel and the Footsie Wootsie, Naomi Martinez registered voters at the State Fair.
    Her work on a sweaty September evening was aimed at signing up American Indians, who gained the right to vote in 1948.
    And her success in registering 10 voters in just over two hours is at the heart of perhaps the largest election controversy in New Mexico so far this year.
    Here's why: There have been massive voter registration efforts across the state in the past year by political parties and other groups. At least 112,089 people have been registered to vote in New Mexico since July 2003, when a new state law election law took effect.
    A thicket of lawsuits has been filed over the issue, and the New Mexico Supreme Court is to consider a petition from the secretary of state on Sept. 27.
    The decision could define the outcome of a close presidential contest here, lawyers and politicians say.
    At issue is how much identification, if any, these citizens will have to show in order to vote in the Nov. 2 general election.
    In short, Republicans, Greens and others say voter identification will ensure a clean election by weeding out fraudulent votes. Democrats and their supporters say it would disenfranchise voters by placing barriers in front of them and making it harder for them to vote.
Seeking a safeguard
    The Republicans and their backers want certain first-time voters to show identification— and they say this is already written into state law, just not enforced by state election officials.
    They say voter identification will prevent people from voting more than once and protect credible votes from being canceled by fraudulent ones.
    "It's a guard; it's a minor guard to address concerns about fraud," said Pat Rogers, a Republican lawyer from Albuquerque involved in the cases.
    As evidence of problems in the system, Rogers and others have pointed to roughly 3,000 questionable voter registration forms identified by Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera.
    Rogers has pointed to a representative of a voter registration effort taking the Fifth Amendment during recent state District Court testimony in Albuquerque as an indication of possible problems.
    Matthew Henderson, of the Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now, or ACORN, did not answer— under his lawyer's advice— when asked about ACORN's handling of voter registration forms.
    He said in an interview later, "... We just need to be cautious and not hand them (Republicans) any tools to try to attack efforts like our voter registration."
    Henderson has also said that virtually every one of the 30,000 registration cards ACORN has submitted has proven to be legitimate.
    Rogers has also cited a 13-year-old Albuquerque boy who somehow ended up registered to vote this year.
    "The point is, it's not a prank," Rogers said. "This is not a game. This is not 'Gee, you don't have any evidence,' this is a system right in front of your nose with demonstrated problems."
'System is working'
    Herrera's attorney, Jeff Landers, has said the Bernalillo County Clerk's Office is doing its job and catching problematic registration forms. "The system is working," he said.
    Many Democrats say broader identification requirements would cause chaos just 44 days before Election Day. Currently, the secretary of state has maintained that only first-time voters who register by mail must show identification before voting.
    Changing the rules now would not only cause confusion but also discriminate against people who simply don't have the identification required, such as college students who move often or people who don't own a car, Democrats have argued.
    Attorney General Patricia Madrid said Friday, "The ability to cast a vote that will be counted in the general election is the most precious right in our democracy. Efforts to hamper that right cannot go unchallenged.
    "This is not a situation similar to producing identification at a grocery or video store," said Madrid, who represents Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron in the voter identification cases. "If the position advocated by the Republicans comes to pass, a great majority of new voters could be prevented from participating meaningfully in the election."
    President Bush and Democrat challenger John Kerry are in a very tight race in New Mexico, according to a recent Journal poll. Bush missed carrying New Mexico by just 366 votes in 2000.
    "Each party is anticipating that their voters are at risk if the statute is interpreted a certain way," said Antoinette Sedillo López, a law professor at the University of New Mexico.
    "The Republicans believe that those turned away are either fraudulent voters, or likely to vote Democratic. And the Democrats believe that if they're turned away, it's fewer votes in their column."
    Dan Seligson of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project in Washington, D.C., said, "This is the single most partisan issue in election administration."
Voters on the street
    Martinez worked at the fair's Indian Village, where the Cellicion Traditional Zuni Dancers performed and at least one vendor ran out of Navajo tacos.
    She works for Moving America Forward— a political group called a "527" because of its federal tax code status— formed by Gov. Bill Richardson last year to register and mobilize voters in five states.
    Richardson aims to get more Hispanics and American Indians politically involved and voting, aides say.
    Former employee Joshua Peña, a Republican college student at New Mexico State University, said he was fired from Moving America Forward because he was registering too many voters of the wrong party.
    "They said I was registering too many Republicans," Peña said. "... We (the group) were pushing for the Democratic vote."
    Amanda Cooper, director of Moving America Forward, responded, "We would never, ever fire somebody because of that."
    She said Peña was fired for other reasons, like a poor attitude and conflicts with other employees. About 40 percent of the voters registered by MAF are something other than Democrats, Cooper said.
    Among newly registered voters at the fair that day was Marilyn Ryan, a member of Isleta Pueblo who never bothered to register before because she thought it didn't matter.
    "I figured as a Native American my little vote didn't count," Ryan said after Martinez helped her fill out the form.
    Ryan said some of her older relatives don't drive, or simply don't have the kind of identification that may be required.
    Jeff Duneman, who also works for Moving America Forward, said his group has registered a 96-year-old Navajo woman who doesn't speak English and has never voted before.
    "Is there a problem with Native Americans voting in record numbers?" Duneman said.
ID? No problem
    But other newly registered voters interviewed at the fair did not have a problem with voter identification.
    Martinez also registered Edward Johnson of Albuquerque, who said he showed his driver's license when voting in Tucson, Ariz., where he used to live.
    "That didn't bother me at all," said Johnson, a member of the Navajo Nation who grew up in Ganado, Ariz. "I think it's a good idea if they haven't done it here."
    Martinez was not alone in her work at the fair. The Republican Party of New Mexico quickly ran out of yard signs supporting President Bush at their booth. Dozens of people stopped by to register, including some for the first time.
    "I think it's ridiculous," Rick Roybal, who lives at Isleta Pueblo, said of the voter identification fight. "What's the problem of showing your ID? You have to show your ID for everything."
    Carver Panzer, a Santa Fe plumbing contractor, said he doesn't think voter ID will prevent fraud in any case. "Because any system can be manipulated," the Chicago native said.
'Armies of lawyers'
    Both sides in the voter ID fight have dug in with six weeks to Election Day. Although lawsuits remain unresolved, the first wave of voting, absentee balloting, starts Oct. 5.
    "The Legislature enacted the voter identification law to protect the voting public," said David A. Garcia, a Republican lawyer involved in one of the cases. "... The county clerks who do follow the law seem to do so easily. So what's the problem?"
    John Boyd, a lawyer with the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said, "Under the banner of voter fraud, the Republicans are out to try to keep people from voting."
    Experts predict that no matter what happens with the current voter identification cases, more fights are sure to come if the race stays close.
    "The Republicans are recruiting (election) observers and the Democrats are doing the same thing," Sedillo López said. "Any irregularity, I think, is going to be cause for a potential challenge."
    Seligson, editor of the nonpartisan Web site electionline.org, said, "A thousand votes here or there could make the difference, so they're going to fight for every vote."
    Seligson's Web site is a project of the Election Reform Information Project, a nonprofit information clearing house.
    "My guess is, if the election was as close as it was in 2000, there will be a flurry of lawsuits from every state where it was close for a whole host of reasons— voting machines, how provisional (emergency paper ballots) votes are counted, questioning the legitimacy of some absentee ballots, reasons that I haven't thought of yet," Seligson said.
    "Anything and everything that could sway the vote one way or another, or anything that is identified as a problem on Election Day," he said. "If it's close, there will be a lawsuit over it."
    Sedillo López said she's not surprised about the court cases.
    "After what happened in Florida, I think that the trust in the system has been eroded," she said, referring to recounts in the 2000 presidential election.
    Seligson was direct: "Both parties are assembling armies of lawyers and I'm sure those armies will be in New Mexico as well."
Parties Interpreting Statutes Differently
    The law's on our side, Republicans, Democrats and Greens all argue in a bitter fight over voter identification in New Mexico.
    At issue is how many first-time registered voters in New Mexico will have to show identification before voting this year.
    Republicans, a Green Party candidate and others point to this "crystal clear" law, passed by the 2003 Legislature:
    "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;
    "If the applicant does not submit the required identification, he will be required to do so when he votes in person or absentee." (NMSA 1978, 1-4-5.1 (I) (4))
    Under this interpretation sought by Republicans and others, new voters who registered through a third-party voter registration drive would be among those having to show identification before voting this fall— the first general election since adoption of the 2003 statute.
    Attorneys for Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, a Democrat, read the law differently.
    Only people who register by mail need show identification, they say. And people who register through one of this year's voter registration drives, where workers sign people up and deliver the forms to the clerk's office, do not need to show identification.
    They cite the following statute, which says how registrations may be submitted:
    "Completed certificates of registration may be mailed or presented in person by the registrant or any other person to the secretary of state or presented in person by the registrant or any other person to the county clerk of the county in which the registrant resides." (NMSA 1978, section 1-4-5.1(E)
    Vigil-Giron's lawyers also have argued that federal election law and other state laws back her interpretation.
    For example, they point to the New Mexico law, 1-6-5 (D), which says, "If the applicant has on file with the county a valid certificate of registration that indicates that the applicant is a voter who registered by mail without submitting the required identification, the county clerk shall notify the voter that he must submit with his absentee ballot 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."