September 28, 2004
Court Sides With Madrid in Voter ID Dispute
By Deborah Baker
The Associated Press
SANTA FE The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that only first-time voters who registered by mail will be required to show identification at the polls, a defeat for Republicans who argued for a much broader ID requirement.
The court, in a 4-1 ruling, ordered Chaves County Clerk David Kunko, a Republican, to abide by the decision.
Other county clerks statewide would have to follow the ruling as well, according to the attorney general.
Kunko backed by a Roswell district judge wanted to require ID from all new voters who did not register in person at his office.
The Supreme Court had heard arguments Monday in the dispute.
Kunko's attorney, Pat Rogers of Albuquerque, said his client "disagrees with the state Supreme Court but I can assure you that he's going to follow the law even though he disagrees with it."
Chief Deputy Attorney General Stuart Bluestone said Attorney General Patricia Madrid was "very pleased" by the ruling.
"This should put an end to the Republican Party's efforts to put obstacles in the way of first-time registrants' right to vote," Madrid, a Democrat, said in a statement.
The dispute centered around how many of New Mexico's tens of thousands of newly registered voters would be required to show identification at the polls.
Democratic Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron interpreted a 2003 state law to mean that only new voters who register by mail must meet the ID requirement.
Kunko interpreted the law to mean that voters who signed up during registration drives at malls or grocery stores, for example as well as at government agencies such as motor vehicle offices would have to show ID.
Republicans argued that a broad ID requirement would curb vote fraud; Democrats said it would amount to a last-minute disruption of the election and would disenfranchise voters.
Absentee voting for the Nov. 2 general election begins Oct. 5.
Attorney Paul Kennedy, representing citizens who brought the case, told the court Monday that Kunko was just following the law, and that Vigil-Giron's interpretation was improper, unlawful and "tortured."
Vigil-Giron asked the high court to force Kunko to follow her directive and ensure uniformity throughout the state.
"She is the constitutional elected officer charged with interpreting the election code," said her lawyer, Assistant Attorney General David Thomson.
Judges in at least two other counties, Otero and Lincoln, had issued rulings similar to that in Chaves County, bucking the secretary of state, the high court was told.
Rogers argued that Vigil-Giron's interpretation gutted the law, and that county clerks should not have to abide by her orders "no matter how ill-conceived or partisan."
The Democratic Party says nearly 120,000 people have registered to vote in New Mexico over the past year 44 percent as Democrats, about 24 percent as Republicans and about 32 percent as independents.
Democrats argued that some voters would be disenfranchised by last-minute ID requirements, especially since they were told when they registered they wouldn't have to show identification.
Rogers disagreed, contending voters without proper ID could cast so-called provisional ballots, which are set aside and reviewed later.
Thomson said that was no solution, since the provisional ballots ultimately would be rejected for ID reasons and the votes wouldn't count.
Voters are entitled not just to a vote, but to an "effective vote," he said.
Democrats and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed written arguments supporting Vigil-Giron, alleged the poor and minorities would bear the brunt of the disenfranchisement.
Hearing the case were Justices Patricio Serna and Pamela Minzner and Chief Justice Petra Maes all elected as Democrats and District Judges Thomas Fitch of Socorro and Stephen Quinn of Clovis, elected as Republicans. Fitch and Quinn replaced Justices Edward Chavez and Richard Bosson, Democrats who recused themselves from the case.
Fitch dissented from Tuesday's decision, but no written reasons were provided.