There is no doubt that we are living through a period of low political participation in the city of Albuquerque, as we recently concluded a City Council election that had the lowest turnout rate of eligible voters since 1974. Just a mere 28,846 ballots were cast out of the city’s 350,072 registered voters. This follows a similarly low turnout for the 2013 mayoral race, and a school board election that resulted in just 3 percent of eligible voters turning out.
We believe that New Mexico is facing a critical juncture in our state’s political history, with substantial reforms needed to engage the electorate in our election process.
If New Mexico implemented automatic registration, this would be a game-changer for the state, decreasing a substantial burden for citizens of the state. This past March, Oregon became the first state to automatically register any eligible voter with a driver’s license. California followed. Other states have implemented same-day voter registration, online voter registration and other policies aimed to make voter registration more accessible to their electorates, recognizing that this increases engagement among citizens.
To keep up with a world that is increasingly Internet-driven, online registration options must be incorporated into state government websites. Fortunately, last April, a bill to establish online voter registration passed through the New Mexico Legislature, stipulating that by January 2016, voters should be able to update their information online and that by July 2017, eligible voters should be able to register to vote for the first time using the online system.
While the law does not mandate that the secretary of state allow registration through websites other than the secretary of state website, it will be very important to include voter registration links on other high-traffic state websites. Ideally we should move toward making various state databases interoperable, to update voter registration seamlessly and automatically. For example, this should be done at bewellnm.com, the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange.
Moreover, since Internet traffic is increasingly mobile these days, online voter registration must work well on phones and tablets. Furthermore, to ensure equitable access to voter registration, the registration website should work in English, Spanish and other languages spoken in New Mexico, including the eight Native languages recognized by the secretary of state.
Throughout the United States, registration deadlines vary widely, from up to 30 days before Election Day to the day itself. New Mexico voters must currently register to vote 28 days prior to Election Day, one of the most advanced deadlines in the nation. As voter registration becomes more accessible with online registration, it is important that New Mexico’s registration deadline be relaxed.
Evidence suggests that Election Day registration brings meaningful increases in participation and decreases disparities in turnout based on income, with states that allow Election Day registration consistently leading the country in voter participation. Election Day registration has a 40-year track record of success in states such as Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
There is no doubt that we are experiencing a period of sobering civic engagement, including levels of turnout so low that the validity of elections may be called into question. We have opened up a more long-term discussion of efforts needed to address this growing problem in New Mexico with some specific suggestions for changes to our voter registration process in the state.
Gabriel R. Sanchez is an associate professor of political science, co-director of the Institute for Policy, Evaluation and Applied Research and executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at The University of New Mexico. Sanchez is also director of research for Latino Decisions, a national survey firm that focuses on Latino political behavior and policy attitudes. Angelina Gonzalez-Aller is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Doctoral Fellow at UNM.