SANTA FE — On June 18, the New Mexico Senate put forth a bill aimed at expanding mail-in voting access for the 2020 general election across the state.
The legislation later morphed in committee to allow independents or those unaffiliated with a major party to change their party affiliation on the same day that they cast a ballot.
Senate Bill 4 — introduced by Democratic Senators Daniel Ivey-Soto and Gabriel Ramos and backed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham — aims to allow county clerks to automatically send mail-in ballots to registered voters without requiring people to request them.
Absentee ballots have been a fiercely debated topic in the era of COVID-19 amid concerns that voters have about casting in-person ballots during a pandemic.
Many states have tried to buff county clerks' powers in sending out absentee ballots by mail, but Republicans across the country have asserted that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to fraud.
Mail-in balloting is slightly more susceptible to voter fraud than in-person voting, according to experts, but is so uncommon that the deviation is statistically insignificant.
The absentee ballot/open primary bill passed the Senate in a 40-2 vote.
SB 4 came after clerk’s offices across the state received an unprecedented number of absentee ballots during the June 2 primary election.
The influx caused problems for many counties — primarily Santa Fe County — due to offices being unable to count all of the absentee ballots received in a timely matter, with some needing extensions to tabulate primary result results.
The bill was initially slated to be debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, an amendment proposed by Senator Cliff Pirtle passed in a 20-19 vote sent the bill to the Senate Rules Committee (SRC).
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth then proposed another amendment that removed the bill entirely from the Judiciary Committee, which passed 27-12 and left the bill only in the hands of the SRC.
Senator Clemente Sanchez, a conservative Democrat, challenged Ivey-Soto on how the bill would provide benefit to the Native American community. Sanchez lost his seat in the June 2 election, when he was defeated by his liberal challenger.
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The amendment changed the bill to still require people to apply for absentee ballots before receiving them and passed the committee in a 6-5 vote.
Heather Ferguson, the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said that the “amendment in SRC ... denied county clerks of their ability to help protect voters and potentially save lives within their counties under a public health emergency.”
“County clerks who wanted this are experts in conducting elections and should have the ability to make decisions based on the needs of their voters, not based on a non-expert's opinion in Santa Fe,” Ferguson said.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said the changes to the bill were disappointing but would still help voters for the general election.
“The committee, unfortunately, showed a lack of trust in our county election officials,” Toulouse Oliver said. “But at the end of the day, the bill is going to do a whole lot to improve our election this fall.”
The bill was then sent to the Senate floor, where it was scheduled to be debated and voted on on Thursday evening. However, technical issues with the webcast forced the Senate to adjourn its session early.
The bill was called up on Friday June 19. Before it ultimately passed and moved to the House, it was amended three times.
The first amendment required ballots to be turned in to their proper counties if an individual returns their ballot at a physical location.
The change came after a county clerk emailed the Rules Committee and expressed concern that ballots that were physically returned were being dropped off in the wrong location, causing confusion among clerks. The amendment was passed in a 38-2 vote.
The second amendment passed unanimously and added an emergency clause ensuring that the bill would go into effect immediately.
The third amendment came from Senator John Sapien, which aims to allow independents and those who decline-to-state to change their party the day of the election, which would open up primaries.
An open primary is a primary election that does not require voters to be affiliated with a political party. Historically, proponents of open primaries say that people can make independent choices.
The temporary election bill is set to end after 2020, but the open primary amendment would become a permanent part of the election code.
The amendment had bipartisan support, with support from Senators Mark Moores, Bill O’Neill, Ramos and Ivey-Soto.
The freedom to change party on the day of the election won’t apply to those registered as a Democrat or Republican. Despite the restrictions, Sapien said the policy would still benefit the 25% of independent voters in the state.
The open primary amendment passed on a 37-5 vote, and SB 4 is scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee later on Friday.
Spencer Butler is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SpencerButler48