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‘The changes in there are very important,’ Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said of Senate Bill 4. ‘Addressing the absentee ballot timelines, redoing the way the envelopes work, there’s all kinds of ministerial issues. The big issue that everyone’s focused on is mail ballots by the county clerks, but in the bill is a provision to allow mail ballots if the secretary of health declares an emergency in a certain area and the legislative panel that’s in the bill were to determine that could happen — so it didn’t completely eliminate mail ballots.’

Correction appended

A scaled-back election overhaul lacking a key provision that would have allowed clerks to mail every registered voter a ballot for the November general election is on its way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk following a dramatic revote after first failing to pass the House.

After three hours of debate, the House rejected Senate Bill 4 in a 38-32 vote Saturday that included many Democrats opposing the measure despite it being a priority of Lujan Grisham and other Democrats. But a subsequent vote to “reconsider” the legislation passed, and after hours of closed-door caucus meetings, a second vote on the legislation cleared the House floor 44-26 without any amendments, rescuing the bill from the legislative graveyard.

House Speaker Brian Egolf and other Democratic leaders persuaded fellow Democrats to support legislation they opposed just hours earlier by reminding them of other provisions in the bill that are meant to help ensure a safe election during the pandemic.

“We basically decided to [prioritize] a safe election, an election where absentee ballot programs can be meaningfully done without late-arriving ballots, without vendors and processing being such a problem like in the primary we just went through,” Egolf said in an interview after the House adjourned.

“It was a very, very high-stakes issue,” he added. “The Senate unfortunately was racing to adjourn, and an additional worry was that if we amended the bill and sent it to the Senate … then the bill would be lost.”

The temporary election changes would allow clerks to automatically send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters ahead of the presidential election. It also makes other changes supporters say will streamline the next election following mail delays that led to problems with people receiving their ballots and a prolonged delay in election results in Santa Fe County. Many people complained about receiving their ballots so late they had to turn them in at the last minute in person.

“That’s something in my opinion we have to do, given what we saw in the primary election with absentee ballots,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview after the Senate voted to end its session prior to the House vote.

“The changes in there are very important,” he continued. “Addressing the absentee ballot timelines, redoing the way the envelopes work, there’s all kinds of ministerial issues. The big issue that everyone’s focused on is mail ballots by the county clerks, but in the bill is a provision to allow mail ballots if the secretary of health declares an emergency in a certain area and the legislative panel that’s in the bill were to determine that could happen — so it didn’t completely eliminate mail ballots.”

But it would not automatically allow clerks to send ballots without first processing an application after Republicans and two Democrats on a key Senate panel stripped the provision from the legislation.

Supporters still say the changes, which would cost about $3 million, would bring clarity to the next election and streamline the process.

Of particular consternation to some members was a provision that allows independent voters to register at a polling location to vote in a Republican, Libertarian or Democratic primary.

The legislation also allows voters to request an absentee ballot sooner, could potentially offer flexibility on the deadline for turning in an absentee ballot and makes other administrative changes that would streamline the election, Wirth said.

The bill would be repealed automatically at the end of this year, while the primary changes would not in effect be active for 23 months, when the next primary election takes place. But because the measure failed to get two-thirds support in the House, an emergency clause that would have activated the bill immediately upon signature from the governor means the bill will not take effect until roughly 60 days before the presidential election.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, argued on the House floor that the semi-open primary option should be seen as a positive change, making it easier for people to vote.

It also requires personal protective equipment for poll workers and other practices meant to ensure safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic and authorizes the secretary of the Department of Health to create health requirements specific to certain counties for the election.

“Somebody who’s not registered could come in Day 27 until Election Day and they can register to vote and declare a party and vote,” Trujillo said.

Supporters argued the changes were necessary to prepare for the upcoming election, when COVID-19 could well still be a threat.

County clerks from across the state previously asked the New Mexico Supreme Court before the primary election in June to allow them to automatically send ballots to registered primary voters. The court denied their petition.

Before the revote, House Republicans attempted to delay the legislation by calling for a vote to send it from the House floor to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. The vote failed.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly mischaracterized a statement from state Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe. The section of Senate Bill 4 pertaining to open primaries does not expire in December and would remain in effect upon signature from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

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(4) comments

Jess Cullinan

This quote from Linda Trujillo is nonsense:

"'Somebody who’s not registered could come in Day 27 until Election Day and they can register to vote and declare a party and vote,' Trujillo said. 'This is an incredibly temporary provision that is only intended to try to keep elections safe for the general election in November.'"

Legislation passed and signed in 2018 ALREADY gives voters the right to register, declare a party, and vote in a Primary election up until the Saturday before Election Day. Already-registered voters, under this same legislation, could not CHANGE their party during that (arbitrary) 28-day period, but NEW registrations could declare a party and vote in the Primary. The continued freeze on party changes was something Republicans fought for, and Democrats allowed the provision in order to pass the rest of the bill -- which allows for new voter registrations and address corrections for already-registered voters inside of that (arbitrary) 28-day period (with more strenuous ID requirements, also insisted upon by Republicans). These provisions were in place for the 2019 local elections and for the statewide Primary.

This new amendment eliminates that (arbitrary) 28-day deadline for party CHANGES, which only matters in the Primary, and won't do anything at all for November. The amendment, unlike the rest of the bill, is meant to be PERMANENT. Not to mention that people already jump parties to vote in the more-competitive primary, then switch back after the election. I've personally processed hundreds of these for my County Clerk.

Could the New Mexican do some actual fact-finding research instead of just parroting lawmakers' confused notions of existing law? Sheesh!

Lynn k Allen

I am registered as a major party voter. I believe that those registered as Independant do so because they want to vote for the candidate they feel best represents their values. I believe that is superior to just “voting along party lines”. “just because they are their party’s pick”. Voting your conscience -is picking The Best of all contests. More voters keep the process of democracy alive.

Voting for the best candidate to represent The People, not the political party is democracy.

Isn’t that the point of elections - to elect the best regardless of party?

Jim Hannan

It's unfortunate that two lame duck Democratic senators totally derailed this bill. The 33 county clerks will have twice the work, having to mail out absentee ballot applications to the 1.2 million voters.

I share Stephanie's concerns about this huge change to the primary election system. There was no public discussion about this issue. Candidates spend much time and effort on voter outreach, including direct mail and phone calls. It seems like independents can decide to vote in primary elections on election day, so candidates will not know the universe of voters.

Stefanie Beninato

This election legislation shows why these types of bills should not be shoved through closed meetings (caucuses) and in special sessions without adequate public participation. Why is it OK to allow independent voters to decide the outcome of a major party primary race? If they are not committed to that party's principles why should they get a voice in a party they are not a member of? I would like to vote on city union activities--why can't I vote there? Same idea--I am not part of the union even though its activities certainly affects me. And really--such baby steps--the clerks can send out applications for mailed ballots to everyone-we saw how successful that went during the primary mostly because the clerks waited to send them out, you had to send in your application and then wait for the actual ballot--how incredibly bizarre to think that mailing out ballots, but not applications, would cause voter fraud.

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