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Published — October 12, 2020

New Mexico tried to make voting easier. Here’s what happened.

The state sent absentee ballot applications to all registered voters and passed a law that will allow people to register to vote on Election Day — starting next year.

Introduction

The general election is already underway in New Mexico, with thousands of people lining up to cast a ballot at early voting sites across the state. 

Two years ago, 54% of voters in New Mexico cast a ballot at one of the state’s early voting sites. Because of COVID-19, state officials have expanded absentee voting by sending applications to vote by mail to all eligible voters.

Democrats have been trying to make it easier to vote ever since they won control of the legislature and the governor’s seat in 2018. In March 2019, New Mexico joined 16 other states that allow people to register to vote on Election Day, although the new law won’t go into effect until 2021. The current deadline to register is 28 days before polls open on Election Day, close to the maximum allowed under federal law.

In recent years, Democratic lawmakers have blocked Republican efforts to require voters to show a photo ID at the polls, which depresses Black and Latino turnout.

But New Mexico still faces hurdles to ensure equal access to the ballot box. The state’s Native American communities have been devastated by the pandemic, which led several tribal officials to close early voting sites during the state’s primary election in June. In all, the state had 21 fewer early voting locations and 167 fewer polling stations open during the June primary than in 2018, according to the University of New Mexico’s Center for Social Policy

The closures are likely one reason voter turnout among Native Americans fell during the primaries, according to political scientists at the University of New Mexico and the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“New Mexico’s current election laws proved inadequate to avoid disproportionately disenfranchising Native American voters during the COVID-19 crisis,” wrote the group of researchers.

Here are two other issues that risk disenfranchising voters in the state:

Voting by Mail

New Mexico does not count ballots postmarked before Election Day if they arrive after the polls close. At least 1,300 absentee ballots were rejected for this reason during the June primary.

The state, however, expanded absentee voting.

In April, 27 county clerks and the secretary of state asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to require all counties to mail ballots to registered voters. Republicans objected to the idea, saying it would invite voter fraud. The justices rejected the clerks’ petition but ordered election officials to mail absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters.

As of May, a record 155,000 New Mexicans had registered to vote by mail.

Felony disenfranchisement

New Mexico is one of 19 states that prohibits people from voting while they are in prison, on probation or on parole. 

The policy, known as “felony disenfranchisement,” was part of a wave of laws enacted after the Civil War, particularly in the South, to limit civil rights gained by formerly enslaved people and constitutional amendments protecting minority rights. The restrictions have a disproportionate impact on Black men, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

As of August, at least 38,000 New Mexicans were not eligible to vote due to felony convictions.

Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill last year that would have restored voting rights to anyone with a felony conviction, including prisoners. The bill died in committee. If it passed, New Mexico would have been only the third state to provide full voting rights to prisoners, joining Vermont and Maine. (The District of Columbia restored such rights this summer.)

Read more in Money and Democracy

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