Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Legal Issue May Alter Absentee Voting
By Dan McKay
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
Thousands of voters will now have to pick up the phone or turn on their computer to request an absentee-ballot application.
Citing legal concerns, the Bernalillo County clerk and some other county clerks around the state will no longer send the applications out automatically before every election.
About 6,000 voters in Bernalillo County were on the list to receive the applications automatically, County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said. Once a person signed up, they automatically received an application before every election, without having to sign up or request a new one each time.
The practice has been in place for at least 10 years.
But nothing in state election laws specifically allows it, officials said.
"We consulted with our county attorney and were advised that it'd probably be a good idea not to continue to do this," Oliver said Monday in an interview.
Most clerks who offered the automatic mailings have stopped, said Bobbi Shearer, director of the state Elections Bureau.
In any case, clerks across the state plan to lobby the Legislature this year for a bill that would authorize the practice and outline who's eligible to receive automatic applications, Oliver and others said.
State House Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque, sponsored such a measure in the past, but it didn't make it through the Legislature. He said Monday the automatic mailings are a good way to increase voter participation, as long as there are safeguards against voter fraud.
"The goal in a democracy is to make sure that we give people every opportunity to exercise their constitutionally protected rights to vote," Park said.
Oliver said she notified the people on her list about a month ago — well ahead of next month's school election — that she will no longer mail applications automatically. But she pointed out that they can call, e-mail or send a fax to the county to get the applications.
"I'm trying to work out some kind of solution," Oliver said.
Daniel Ivey-Soto, lobbyist for the clerks' affiliate of the New Mexico Association of Counties, said attorneys for Bernalillo and Doña Ana counties both concluded they should stop automatic mailings.
"There's nothing in the law that says you can't. On the other hand, there's nothing that provides (that) it's appropriate for the clerks to do this," he said.
Ivey-Soto, a former state elections director, said the debate over Park's bill in the Legislature a few years ago brought attention to the fact the procedure wasn't specifically authorized by law.
Oliver said since then, there has been talk that clerks might be sued over the issue.
Critics have questioned whether mailing the applications could lead to voter fraud if the recipient has already moved but not updated their voter registration, she said. There also have been questions about who qualifies to be put on the list, Oliver said.
In Bernalillo County, anyone who asked in writing to be on the list was added to it, she said.
Park said mailing out applications, not the actual ballots, is a good safeguard.