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The New Mexico Voting Rights Act is coming back, lawmakers and advocates say


The New Mexico Voting Rights Act is coming back, lawmakers and advocates say

Jan 23, 2023 | 7:05 am ET
By Austin Fisher
The New Mexico Voting Rights Act is coming back, lawmakers and advocates say
During a news conference on the first day of the 2023 legislative session in the rotunda at the state capitol in Santa Fe, advocates held signs which together had 17,000 tally marks, each representing someone in New Mexico denied the right to vote as a result of a felony conviction. Adam Griego (right) looks up at the rotunda. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

June 26, 2018 is a day Adam Griego will never forget as long as he lives: the beginning of his voyage into incarceration, first in Texas, then Oklahoma, and eventually the federal prison in Florence, Colorado.

Once someone is caught in the criminal legal system, Griego said, it keeps an incredibly tight grip on them even after release in many ways, including denying them the right to vote.

“Most people don’t realize the magnitude of essentially being wiped off the face of the Earth during this process,” he said. “You are completely removed from society, and stripped of all rights.”

The last time Griego was allowed to vote was in 2012. When he got out of prison on Sept. 9, 2020, he said he asked his probation officer if he could vote, and she told him no.

“Our inability to engage civically increases our chances of returning to prison and is a prime example of taxation without representation,” Griego told a small gathering in the rotunda of the New Mexico Capitol on Jan. 17, the opening day of the 2023 legislative session.

People with felony convictions can vote in New Mexico

The state allows people who are out of prison — and who are no longer on probation or parole — to re-register to vote. 

He and others from Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, the ACLU of New Mexico, and the Sentencing Project were there to advocate for the restoration of voting rights for more people with felony convictions.

This year, advocates are hoping to extend the franchise to about 6,325 people currently on probation or parole, said Justin Allen, inclusive democracy organizer at Organizers in the Land of Enchantment.

A high-profile package in the 2022 New Mexico legislative session known as the Voting Rights Act would have made it easier for people with felony convictions to participate in elections, along with a host of other expansions for voters. It eventually reached the state Senate but died thanks in part to a filibuster by a Republican lawmaker in the session’s final hours.

Secretary of State talks details of NM’s Voting Rights Act

The proposal will be included in a bill expected to again be called the New Mexico Voting Rights Act, said Marie-Pier Frigon, spokesperson for Organizers in the Land of Enchantment.

Sen. Katy Duhigg said she will sponsor the legislation in the Senate.

“We’re hoping to see it filed soon,” Frigon said.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse-Oliver supports “voting rights restoration and will be advocating for it this session,” spokesperson Alex Curtas said Friday.

Curtas said there will likely be a voting rights bill similar to what was introduced last session, but he was not sure exactly what will be in it or when it would be filed.

Last year’s bill would have automatically registered a voter when they engage with their driver’s licensing office, extended voting rights to 16-year-olds in municipal and school board elections, and required counties to provide at least one ballot drop box.

New Mexico Black Leadership Council Founder and Director Cathryn McGill said passing the proposal to extend the franchise to people with felony convictions would be good governance.

“Based on what I know about the history of voting in New Mexico and the kinds of individuals seeking rights restoration, I will never be convinced that there is any downside to this common sense, reasonable request,” McGill said.

Perpetual punishment

In the United States, state governments do not allow approximately 5.8 million people with felony convictions (and in some states, with misdemeanor convictions) to vote.

New Mexico law already allows restoration of voting rights for people convicted of felonies who complete their sentences and all the conditions of their probation or parole, but it does not always happen.

In New Mexico, if you’re incarcerated past your release date — because there are not enough resources outside of prison to meet mental health needs — you cannot re-register to vote. And, if you have completed your sentence but you’re on probation and parole, you cannot re-register to vote.

Researchers at The Sentencing Project found 17,572 New Mexicans were barred from voting in the midterm elections two months ago because of those exceptions in the law.

Over 17,000 New Mexicans barred from voting in the midterms, report shows

The Sentencing Project estimates 64% of New Mexico’s disenfranchised adults live in the community.

Griego said this denial of the right to vote can be viewed as a form of “perpetual punishment.”

“Why is it that our voice means nothing, or that no one wishes to hear from us?” he asked.

Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, said expanding the franchise is part of a long arc to challenge mass incarceration.

In New Mexico, she said, just like in the rest of the country, the number of people disenfranchised has grown right alongside the number of people who’ve been incarcerated since the early 1970s, she said.

These policies disproportionately harm Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people through a range of practices, she said, including disproportionate police stops and excessive rates of drug arrests.

“Public safety is not only defined by arrest. Civic engagement can also make New Mexico safer,” Porter pointed out.

People who’ve been incarcerated are less likely to be convicted again if they return to their communities and work jobs, pay taxes, and feel connected and invested in the future, she said.

Among people with a prior arrest, there are “consistent differences between voters and non-voters in rates of subsequent arrest, incarceration, and self-reported criminal behavior,” according to Christopher Uggen at the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza at New York University.

Other research suggests people living in states which continued to restrict the right to vote after incarceration were found to have a higher likelihood of being arrested again compared with people living in states where their voting rights could be restored.

In Houston, people in jail can still go to the polls

Griego works two full-time jobs, is an active member of his church in Santa Fe, teaches a college-level heating and air conditioning course, “and just can’t escape the constant judgment of being a so-called ‘felon.’”

He is slated for early termination of supervised probation at the end of January.

“The label follows me everywhere that I turn,” he said. “As a society, we must learn the value of humanity. People do make mistakes, and I believe it’s part of growth — but should it follow a person everywhere they go for the rest of their lives?”