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Registered by Mail? Bring ID

By Andy Lenderman
Journal Politics Writer
    The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that only first-time voters who registered by mail must show identification before voting this fall.
    The ruling means that the thousands of people who registered to vote outside a grocery store or at the State Fair as part of a voter registration drive, for example, will not have to show identification before voting.
    However, the exact form of identification required for those who registered by mail remained unclear Tuesday. Two top state elections officials differed in their opinions.
    The state Attorney General's Office is looking into the matter and is expected to have an answer later this week.
    The court's written order was a defeat for Republicans, Green Party members and others who sought to enforce a broader identification requirement through a series of court battles that began in August. Supporters of the broader requirement said state law requires all first-time voters to show identification, unless they registered in person at a county clerk's office.
    In a 4-1 vote, the Supreme Court concluded that "the Legislature intended to require identification only for first-time registrants who register by mail."
    Justices Petra Jimenez Maes, Pamela B. Minzner, Patricio M. Serna and District Judge Stephen K. Quinn concurred, and District Judge Thomas G. Fitch dissented. Quinn and Fitch replaced Justices Edward L. Chavez and Richard C. Bosson, who recused themselves from the case.
    "I'm very pleased that the justices ruled in favor of protecting the rights of those first-time voters," Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron said.
    More than 112,000 people have registered to vote in New Mexico since July 2003, when a new state election law took effect. Many of those voters were registered through massive registration drives launched this year by both major political parties and others.
    The court's action was prompted by a petition filed by Vigil-Giron earlier this month that sought to stop Chaves County Clerk David Kunko from carrying out broader voter identification requirements.
    "We respect the opinion of the state," Kunko's lawyer, Pat Rogers, said Tuesday.
    "The law needs to be followed, even when you disagree with it."
    When asked if Kunko would appeal to another court, Rogers said Kunko is considering his options.
    "We're done," said Rep. Dan Foley, R-Roswell, who was a party to the case. "I don't believe there is a standing yet to go to federal court."
    Many Democrats have said the requirement of voter identification could discriminate against poor and minority voters, who may not always have the ID necessary.
    "I think the New Mexico Supreme Court's bipartisan decision shows confidence in our election process and our state and local election officials," said Jeanne Bassett of the nonpartisan New Mexico Public Interest Research Group, which intervened in the case.
    But many Republicans and Greens maintain broadening the requirements is a simple way to prevent election fraud. They have pointed to a 13-year-old who somehow ended up registered to vote and other examples of problems.
    The Supreme Court "spit in the eye" of most New Mexicans who support more voter identification, Foley said.
    "They want to make sure that every fraudulent vote counts, which diminishes honest votes," Foley said of the Supreme Court.
    People who registered to vote by mail since Jan. 1, 2003, will be required to show identification, according to Denise Lamb, director of the state Bureau of Elections. She said that is when a federal law regulating voter registration by mail took effect.
    She said she did not know how many people have registered to vote by mail since then.
    Lamb and Vigil-Giron differed on whether a voter's identification must match the name and address on the voter rolls. Lamb says the ID and address do not need to match, while Vigil-Giron says they do.
    "The forms of identification are important and the Attorney General's Office will determine in the next couple of days what forms of ID will be required," said Caroline Buerkle, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Patricia Madrid.
    Also Tuesday, Vigil-Giron and Lamb explained what happens when people vote on provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are emergency ballots used when a voter doesn't have the required ID at their polling place, for example. Those people who vote on provisional ballots must retrieve their identification and show it to the county clerk by 7 p.m. on Election Day— or their vote does not count, they said.