The New Mexico Voting Rights Act Unpacked

A picture of the New Mexico state capitol accompanied by small text that reads "NEW MEXICO | SENT TO GOVERNOR", followed by large bolded text that says "H.B.4"

Update: On Thursday, March 30, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 4 into law.

The New Mexico Voting Rights Act, House Bill 4, is awaiting the imminent signature of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D). With Democratic trifecta control, New Mexico will become the first state to enact an omnibus pro-voting law in the 2023 legislative session.

“In New Mexico, we have long been a national model for protecting voter access and deploying innovative election security solutions,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D) wrote for Democracy Docket last winter. “But the work to strengthen our democracy is never finished and this year, during our legislative session that’s now underway, we’re again forging ahead with a comprehensive set of voting rights reforms as the national prospects on these policies falter.”

Though last year’s proposals ultimately stalled, New Mexico leaders remained energized to improve upon the state’s already expansive voting policies. According to Source New Mexico, Toulouse Oliver believes that the 2023 version of the bills is better than last year’s “because it has really been spearheaded and brought to life by the advocacy community.” In today’s piece, we break down the New Mexico Voting Rights Act, highlight a few advocates behind the success and explore the impact of the bill’s provisions. 

What does the New Mexico Voting Rights Act do?

The bill restores voting rights to upwards of 11,000 formerly incarcerated New Mexicans. 

New Mexico is set to restore voting rights to individuals with felony convictions immediately upon release from prison. Currently, people with felony convictions cannot vote until the completion of their entire sentence, including parole and probation. H.B. 4 restores voting rights to individuals on parole and probation, which will immediately impact upwards of 11,000 New Mexicans. 

“A voter is ineligible to vote while imprisoned in a correctional facility as part of a sentence for a felony conviction,” the bill text reads. Additionally, H.B. 4 outlines the registration opportunities available as part of the re-entry process. 

“The reason this is so important is because eligible voters have been arbitrarily denied by the county clerk’s office,” explained Justin Allen, the Inclusive Democracy Organizer at OLÉ New Mexico, a grassroots organization of working families. “I was denied three times even though I had a letter from a district judge stating that I was eligible to vote. What this does is it will eliminate the confusion about who is eligible and who is not.” 

This policy change — ensuring that every citizen living among their community has a right to vote — mirrors a bill enacted in Minnesota in early March. In both states, the success emerged from the years-long organizing of people who have been directly impacted by the criminal-legal system.

“When people have a sense of belonging and connection to their communities, they’re less likely to repeat mistakes that put them in prison in the first place,” Allen continued. “We feel that civic engagement is critical to reducing recidivism.” 

The bill establishes automatic voter registration.

Once implemented, voters will be automatically registered to vote when they interact with the Motor Vehicle Division or another designated state or local agency, except if the voter opts out later on. By establishing automatic voter registration, New Mexico has aligned itself with the 22 states and Washington D.C. that have this system. 

The bill also authorizes an Indian nation, tribe or the state’s human services division that collects sufficient information to function as a source agency for automatic voter registration.

The bill creates a permanent absentee ballot list and expands drop box use.

New Mexico has offered no-excuse mail-in voting since 1993. H.B. 4 creates a “voluntary permanent absentee voter list” where if a voter opts-in, they will automatically receive a mail-in ballot before every statewide election. 

“We’re excited about the permanent absentee ballot list,” Ahtza Chavez, executive director of NM Native Vote — a civic engagement organization working with Native American communities — told Democracy Docket. “Some of our disabled and elderly voters forget, don’t reply on time, don’t have the broadband to do it every year, to make those requests. That’s going to be really beneficial.” 

H.B. 4 also allows counties to offer more drop boxes: “Each county shall have at least two monitored secured containers,” the bill reads. However, a Senate committee added an amendment allowing counties to request to waive this requirement “in consideration of geographic or security constraints.” County clerks may also request additional drop boxes.

The bill enacts the Native American Voting Rights Act.

A large portion of the bill text is dedicated to the Native American Voting Rights Act subsection, which makes New Mexico the first state to build such protections into its election code, according to Chavez. “I would say that this is a win for tribal leaders. This is a win for our tribal voting advocates, policymakers, and for each and every Native American voter across the state,” she emphasized.

H.B. 4 ensures that pre-existing political lines are respected when adjusting precinct boundaries on tribal lands. It also outlines the process for Native leaders to request early voting locations, polling places and drop boxes. Chavez explained to Democracy Docket that this provision simply brings the timeline for tribal leaders to request voting resources in line with other jurisdictions. Previously, and notably in 2020, tribal leaders were unable to have the same flexibility in making policy changes since their requests had to be filed further in advance. “There’s no reason that Native people should be forced to follow different standards when it comes to requesting those resources,” Chavez added. “We were able to change that so that we are now in parity with the rest of the state.”

Additionally, when county clerks consider establishing a polling place or early voting location, H.B. 4 requires them to evaluate the travel distance for voters and the number and availability of drop boxes and early voting locations. Once established, “an election day polling place located on Indian nation, tribal or pueblo lands shall not be eliminated or consolidated with other election day polling places in that election cycle without the written agreement of the Indian nation, tribe or pueblo on whose lands the election day polling place is located,” the bill continues

Finally, H.B. 4 permits the use of governmental buildings as mailing addresses for voter registration purposes. It is well documented that in certain rural areas, Native Americans may have noncity-style mailing addresses, which are instead based on highway numbers, P.O. boxes or solely descriptive. These nontraditional mailing addresses are often unduly rejected for voter registration. Under H.B. 4, the secretary of state will maintain a list of government and official buildings addresses that can be used for both voter registration and requesting  mail-in ballots.

What’s next for New Mexico voting rights?

The bill takes a few more positive steps: designating Election Day as a school holiday, tweaking the state’s pre-existing same day registration provision and expanding the guardrails for unlawful use of voter data to include the improper selling, loaning or providing access to that data. The large majority of H.B. 4’s provisions will go into effect on July 1, 2023 with the exception of the Election Day holiday and the permanent absentee list (Jan. 1, 2024) and automatic voter registration (July 1, 2025).

In the mind of the coalition organizations pushing for H.B. 4, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “There are so many parts of the full omnibus bill that are going to help rural and tribal communities that we knew that we needed to have it as a part of this full omnibus bill,” Chavez explained how provisions beyond the Native American Voting Rights Act are pivotal to Native communities. “All of these things are going to be key and crucial to make sure that every single New Mexican has access to the ballot and their constitutional right to vote.”

As far as what’s next for the coalition, Allen emphasized that there’s important work to be done: “It’s not likely that people are going to get excited about voting just because a bill was passed,” he explained. “Our job now is to work on the implementation piece: educating young people, formerly incarcerated people and other community members who are not engaged in the political process about why civic engagement is important for themselves and communities.”