A bill to restore voting rights for felons while they are still on probation or parole cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 to support House Bill 74, which also would make it easier for felons to register to vote as they leave prison. The vote fell along party lines, with Democrats supporting the legislation and Republicans opposing it.
The bill will head to the floor, its sponsor, Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said Wednesday.
Chasey said restoring voting rights to people who have served their time helps them "engage in their communities and not go back to prison."
She and some two-dozen members of the public who spoke in favor of the bill said voting rights help rehabilitate former prisoners and should be granted without any sense of judgment.
Justin Allen, a New Mexican who testified in favor of the bill, said he served time in prison. He has since become a volunteer in a number of community organizations and is on the verge of graduating from the University of New Mexico with a degree in American studies, he said.
The right to vote makes all the difference in the process of being rehabilitated, he added.
"It restores the belief that we have a place in society whereas many of us didn't believe that we did," Allen said.
Some Republicans on the committee said that while they favor restoring voting rights to onetime felons, they believe it is acceptable only after those people have served the terms of their probation and parole.
House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said "shortcutting the probation and parole process … is problematic for me."
The issue of granting voting rights to felons varies around the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, felons never lose their right to vote, even while incarcerated, in Vermont, Maine and the District of Columbia.
In 18 states, felons lose their voting rights while incarcerated but immediately regain them upon release from prison. Should Chasey's bill become law, New Mexico would join that group of states.
Repeated efforts to pass similar legislation in recent years in New Mexico have failed, with the bills often getting stalled in committee hearings.
The bill's fiscal impact report does not anticipate any costs being incurred with the new legislation. That report says it could simplify current procedures within both county clerk offices and the Secretary of State's Office in terms of maintaining and processing felon voting-rights records.
Neither the bill nor the fiscal impact report says how many people would regain their right to vote in New Mexico if the bill became law.