Voting Rights Package Derails in New Mexico

State Democrats lose an opportunity to pass reforms that have languished in Congress, leaving thousands disenfranchised and activists "disheartened, disappointed, and angry."

Daniel Nichanian   |    February 18, 2022


A landmark voting rights package, rolled out to great fanfare by New Mexico’s Democratic governor and secretary of state in January, came crashing down this week. Republican lawmakers successfully delayed proceedings until they ran out the clock on the state’s 30-day legislative session, which ended yesterday. By that point, however, the package had already been weakened by the state Senate’s Democratic-run committees.

The rapid sequence of events left voting rights advocates deeply frustrated. As originally introduced, the package contained a bevy of reforms they have pushed for years. It would have restored the voting rights of thousands of New Mexicans who cannot vote due to a felony conviction. It would have also enabled people to sign up to get mail-in ballots for all elections without having to request one, made Election Day a holiday, strengthened voter access on Native communities, and established a new system for the state to automatically register residents.

Those reforms are now delayed until 2023 at the earliest, unless Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham calls a special session.

“It’s really unfortunate and very upsetting to us, and to a lot of other people who were looking forward to an expansion of voting rights,” Austin Weahkee, political director of NM Native Vote, a group that champions better access to the ballot on Native land, told Bolts soon after the session ended.

“I’m disheartened, disappointed, and angry,” said Miles Tokunow, the deputy director of OLÉ, a civil rights group in New Mexico. “Instead of the political games played by the senators who got into the way of this historic legislation, I wish for once they’d think of the thousands of New Mexicans whose livelihoods are at stake and who will continue to be disenfranchised. Shame on them.”

Republican senators used repeated dilatory tactics to stall for time during the last days of the session. The package ultimately died on Thursday morning thanks to a filibustering speech by Republican Senator Bill Sharer. 

Tokunow also faults decisions made earlier by Democratic senators. During the session, local voting rights groups like Progress Now were already blaming Democratic Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto for weakening the package. When Senate Bill 8, the original package of reforms, sat in committee, Ivey-Soto introduced a substitution that took out key components, including automatic voter registration and the Election Day holiday.

Multiple advocates also told Bolts that the package would not have been vulnerable to Republican delays had it not sat in a Senate committee overseen by Ivey-Soto for weeks. “He held up the bill for a couple of weeks, and in a 30 day-session that’s a very long time,” said Leila Salim, who volunteers with OLÉ. “That was the big thing that stalled that bill.” Weahkee agreed, saying, “We would never have been in this position if it were not for the Chair of Rules,” referring to Ivey-Soto’s role.

Ivey-Soto rejected that characterization, telling Bolts the bill had plenty of time to go through the legislature once a version passed Senate committees. He blamed advocates for lengthening the committee process by asking for public comment, and House Democrats for attempting procedural maneuvers that generated even more resistance from Republicans in the final days.

Ivey-Soto also explained he has a disagreement with automatic voter registration. As long as a state has same-day voter registration, he says, it’s intrusive for the state to proactively register people. “Nobody is prejudiced by not being registered to vote and we should respect the agency of voters in making that decision,” he said. 

Under the original version of SB 8, eligible New Mexicans would have been automatically registered while interacting with various public agencies, and then received a notice that they could opt out of voter rolls by returning a prepaid mailer. Proponents of this process say same-day registration alone cannot replace this, since registering people in advance of Election Day enables them to use vote-by-mail options and can reduce lines at the polls.

New Mexico offered Democrats an opportunity to accomplish in a state capitol what they have failed to do in Congress—to pass legislation expanding access to the polls.

Many of the measures in SB 8 were similar to provisions in the federal For the People Act, which has generated a firestorm of progressive anger against the U.S. senators responsible for blocking it. Yet there’s comparatively little attention being paid to parallel fights to advance voting rights legislation in Democratic-run state capitals around the country. 

The original SB 8 package also went further in a few key ways, including lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections, a move that proponents say would boost civic engagement at a formative time.

Local activists who were in Santa Fe over the past month hope Democrats make these issues a priority. Some also wish Democrats changed procedural rules to prevent delays.

“The filibuster should be abolished,” Justin Allen, an activist who testified for the bill two weeks ago, told Bolts on Thursday evening. It “remains a tool for maintaining systemic racism.” (The debate mirrors that at the federal level. The state’s two U.S. Senators have similarly said in the past that they support ending the federal filibuster.) 

Allen’s testimony focused on expanding rights restoration. The voting rights package would have enabled New Mexicans who are on probation and parole to vote. Had it passed, New Mexico would have enabled anyone who is not incarcerated to vote, joining 20 states that already do this. More than 11,000 people were barred from voting here because they fell in those categories in the 2020 election, according to a study by the Sentencing Project.

Allen was disenfranchised for more than two decades, first while he served a lengthy sentence and then while he was under supervision. He voted for the first time of his life in 2018, and soon began volunteering with different social justice organizations. He says this work changed his life at a time when he could not get any employer to hire him. Allen is now a fellow with America Votes NM. “I wouldn’t be in this community today had I not been speaking up for myself and advocating for myself and advocating for others,” he said.

“I view voting rights as an extension of my voice, and exercising my voice is how I broke the cycle of recidivism for myself,” he told Bolts. “Most people who find themselves in prison lost their voice long before they enter the carceral state. That’s why we accept plea bargains and why we have allowed others to make decisions for us and about us.” 

Even after he was discharged from supervision and became eligible to vote in 2018, Allen says he had to repeatedly return to the county clerk’s office because they kept erroneously denying his registration. The complex rules that govern felony disenfranchisement in many states also lock out many eligible people from voter rolls.

New Mexico’s failure to expand rights restoration this session coincided with the defeat of another promising criminal justice reform in the state.

A bill that would have repealed sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors also died this week, a reform that 24 states have already made, including GOP-run Ohio last year. New Mexico seemed poised to join them when the state Senate passed Senate Bill 43, but the bill’s champions pulled it after the Democratic governor, a Republican lawmaker, and the association that lobbies on behalf of prosecutors struck a deal that gutted it, according to Source NM

“I know a lot of the individuals that that legislation would impact from spending time in prison with them, and I’ve witnessed their humanity,” said Allen, who vowed to continue demanding reform, including restoring the right to vote not just to formerly incarcerated people but also to people currently in prison.

Other advocates said they would continue to push for an ambitious voting rights package. “What’s next for us is really everything that was in the original draft of Senate Bill 8,” said Weahkee of NM Native Vote. “Everything that was in that original draft is important to us and disproportionately impacts Native communities. So we’re going to continue to fight for that.”