New Mexico lawmakers advanced two major voting rights bills on Friday, illustrating a growing nationwide trend as lawmakers are prioritizing the issue following rampant problems at the polls during the 2018 midterm elections.
New Mexico could join Maine and Vermont as the only states in the country that allow people convicted of felonies to cast a ballot from behind bars. State lawmakers took a critical first step on Friday by moving HB 57, legislation that would completely abolish felony disenfranchisement, out of a key committee.
“We want the people who are in prison to be engaged in their communities, we want them to participate, we want them to care about what happens,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Gail Chasey (D), during a hearing to discuss the legislation, according to the New Mexico Political Report.
The House Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee passed the bill despite the fact that another Democrat, who wants to narrow the measure’s scope by only allowing the formerly incarcerated to vote, indicated he wanted to keep working on the language. HB 57 now moves to the Judiciary Committee.
Under current state law, New Mexico residents who are convicted of a felony are removed from the voting rolls. Their voting rights are supposed to be automatically restored once they’ve completed their sentence, probation, or parole. But according to New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, it doesn’t usually work that way in practice. The state’s corrections department doesn’t always give elections officials updated data.
The committee also passed an automatic voter registration bill on Friday. Eligible voters in New Mexico can already register when they apply for a driver’s license or another form of state identification. But the bill would make this process automatic by creating an “opt-out” process for those who don’t want to register to vote, instead of an “opt-in” process.
The automatic voter registration bill is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled legislature. The chances of fully abolishing felon disenfranchisement are less clear, however. A few state Democrats are skeptical of the measure, arguing that allowing incarcerated people to vote while they’re serving out their time goes too far.
New Mexico lawmakers also want to pass a separate bill allowing for same-day voter registration, which they didn’t have time to debate on Friday.
The legislature’s advancement of the voting rights measures on Friday gave hope to voting rights activists.
“This has been more than a year and a half of planting seed,” Millions for Prisoners organizer Selinda Guerrero told the Appeal on Friday, after the hearing. “I cannot believe that we are here, this is so incredible.”