SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Wednesday, March 8, New Mexico’s senators debated a bill that would change a range of election-related rules around the state. Supporters say it would help New Mexicans become more active in the state’s politics. The opposition says it could violate individuals’ constitutional rights and lead to security concerns.

House Bill 4, sponsored by a handful of Democratic legislators, seeks to make a range of changes including making Election Day a school holiday, clarifying prohibited uses of voter lists, and changing the state’s voter registration process. The bill also simplifies the process to restore voting rights to felons after they’ve been incarcerated.

The thrust of the bill is an attempt to increase New Mexico’s voter participation rate. New Mexico regularly ranks among the bottom 10 states for voter turnout, co-sponsor Sen. Katy M. Duhigg (D-Bernalillo & Sandoval) pointed out.

To boost participation, the bill would switch New Mexico to an automatic voter registration system. When qualified electors sign up for or renew their driver’s license at the Motor Vehicle Division, they would be automatically registered to vote, as long as they provide a document proving their citizenship.

Following that automatic sign-up, the individual would get a mailed postcard that gives them more info and allows them to opt out of the system.

Sen. David M. Gallegos (R-Eddy & Lea) argued that by making voter registration an opt-out system, the bill would violate New Mexicans’ freedom of religion. Gallegos said this might interfere with Jehovah’s Witnesses beliefs. So, he tried to amend the bill to allow people to opt out of registration before ever entering the voter registration system.

Duhigg fired back: “There are over there are 70 faith leaders and religious organizations across New Mexico who have signed on supporting this. But this would not violate any, any religious tenants.” And Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Catron, Grant & Socorro), who says she grew up under the Jehovah’s Witness religion, says the bill wouldn’t violate what she learned about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs.

Duhigg also noted that such an amendment would essentially keep the system the same as it is now. And she said the current system isn’t working; that New Mexico’s voter participation is low. Ultimately the Senate voted not to include Gallegos’s amendment.

Some legislators also expressed concern over a requirement in the bill that counties use secured, monitored ballot boxes. If there are security concerns or other issues, counties can request a waiver for that requirement, but Sen. Craig W. Brandt (R-Sandoval) argued that the boxes still might not be secure. Duhigg argued that the boxes, which would be monitored by video camera, are as secure, if not more secure, than mail-in ballots.

Brandt also expressed concern that the bill would allow convicted felons to vote before they pay their full debt to society. The bill would clarify that once a convicted felon was released from prison, they’d be allowed to register to vote, as long as they’re otherwise qualified.

As state law currently stands, felons are allowed to vote once they’ve completed their sentence, including parole. Sen. Bill B. O’Neill (D-Abq.) noted that even though that’s true, the paperwork and process involved in restoring voting rights currently overcomplicates the process.

Sen. Cliff R. Pirtle (R-Chaves, Eddy & Otero) seemed to take issue with the bill as a whole: “The truth of the matter is it doesn’t expand voting rights. Everybody has the same rights currently. I don’t believe that anybody was prevented from voting that wanted to, otherwise, we would have gotten an email or a phone call,” Pirtle said. “I really don’t see the need for this other than restoring voting rights to felons.”

Following a drawn-out debate, Sen. William E. Sharer (R-San Juan) introduced a substitute bill focused on protecting Native American voters. Duhigg said she’d be happy to work on a bill to help ensure voter protections for Native Americans, but that the substitute bill, presented on the floor, would deprive other people of the protections in House Bill 4. The majority of the Senate shot down the substitute.

In the end, the majority of the Senate present voted in favor of House Bill 4. So, it moves forward.

Next, it’s headed to the House of Representatives. It was already passed there, but the House needs to agree to the changes Senators made in committee in order for the bill to head to the Governor’s desk.