By JENS GOULD
A Senate panel significantly watered down a bill late Thursday that aims to streamline the voting-by-mail process if the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing during November’s general election.
Senate Bill 4, which is backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, had proposed to allow county clerks to automatically send mail-in ballots to registered voters without requiring people to request them.
But after a three-hour debate, the Senate Rules Committee voted to strike that provision from the bill. Under the revised bill, people would still need to apply for absentee ballots before receiving them.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, proposed the amendment after Republicans on the panel expressed concerns that automatically mailing ballots would put election security at risk. Two Democrats on the committee, President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen and Sen. Clemente Sanchez, voted with the Republicans, giving the amendment a narrow 6-5 victory.
“The bridge too far for me was to mail ballots,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.
The committee approved the amended bill unanimously and it now heads to the Senate floor. Should it pass there, the legislation would be temporary and would be repealed at the end of 2020.
The bill was proposed after county clerks were overwhelmed by the huge volume of absentee ballots they received during the primary election earlier this month, leading to long delays in tallying results in several areas of the state.
“When the primary election happened this year, there were a lot of people who were frustrated,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, who co-sponsored the bill.
Clerks’ offices took in an unprecedented number of absentee ballots during the primary after election officials and advocates led campaigns to encourage people to request mail-in ballots to avoid going to polling stations during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Santa Fe County, for instance, was unable to count all its absentee ballots in a timely manner and was given permission to extend its deadline to submit results until four days after the election because of the high number of ballots cast by mail.
The bill would have given county clerks the option to choose between automatically sending voters either mail-in ballots or ballot applications, or to opt not to send anything automatically at all.
Proponents said during the debate that automatically sending people ballots would help avoid a situation that occurred in the primary, when some absentee votes arrived at clerks’ offices after Election Day, rendering them uncountable per state law.
Removing the step of having to apply for a ballot could have also reduced potential problems with mail service, which was an issue during the primary. Lujan Grisham said there were “serious delays” in the delivery of absentee ballots to households across the state.
But the bill’s supporters weren’t able to get everything they wanted, as concerns about voting security prevailed.
Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said he was concerned allowing clerks to automatically mail ballots would make it easier for people to cheat on elections.
“There’s so many ways these things can be tainted and it really bothers me,” Ingle said.
Pirtle said voter registration addresses were not sufficiently updated in the state to safely mail ballots automatically.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who was in the committee room during the debate, said afterward that the change was “disappointing” but said the bill would still help voting procedures in the fall.
“The committee today, unfortunately, showed a lack of trust in our county election officials,” she said. “But at the end of the day, the bill is going to do a whole lot to improve our election this fall.”
Ivey-Soto said the bill “creates clearer, more realistic timelines” for mailing absentee ballots than voters and clerks experienced during the primary.
Clerks will have to send out absentee ballot applications 50 days before the election, and those applications will be due no later than 14 days before the election.
While the bill doesn’t change the deadline by which absentee ballots have to be received, voters will be informed that they should mail their ballots no later than seven days before the election, he said.
The legislation stipulates that polling places located on Indian nation, tribal or pueblo lands cannot be closed without the written agreement of the tribal government. It would also mandate that there must be at least one polling station set up on those sovereign nations if its residents are unable to leave because of local public health restrictions.
The bill would also allow clerks to track mail ballots through an “intelligent bar code” system.
“It’s going to improve the checks and balances all the way around,” said Sen. Gabriel Ramos, who also co-sponsored the bill.