As of now, it's easy for eligible voters to make their voices heard in elections. With early voting, we get 28 days to cast our ballots instead of just one. The Bernalillo County Clerk has installed convenience centers all over the city so people can vote wherever they choose.
Advocates say government should be doing everything possible to keep voting fair and easy. That's because so many people are still absent from the process. More than 616,000 people in New Mexico are eligible but still unregistered to vote. Turnout in elections tends to be abysmally low—we've averaged a mere 28 percent of registered voters in presidential primaries since 1996.
With numbers like those, you'd think everyone would be passionate about increasing the ranks of voters and educating people about the importance of civic participation. Right?
First off, you DO NOT need to present ID at the polls to vote on Nov. 6. But voter ID laws instigated a serious brawl as this year's general election approached.
According to a report from public interest journalism group ProPublica, the laws are controversial because advocates have shown that requiring ID disenfranchises marginalized people who tend to vote for Democrats—especially minorities, low-income voters and the elderly. On the other side, Republican proponents of voter ID laws insist that fraud is widespread.
When Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran ran for office in 2010, getting a state voter ID law passed was one of her top priorities. She told the Alibi she'd heard busloads of people were committing voter fraud.
In November last year, Duran's office released a report saying that her staff uncovered 105 cases of non-U.S. citizens who had registered to vote, 19 of whom may have actually voted in elections. No supporting evidence was provided.
Duran's report was critical of anyone who might want to minimize the issue of voter fraud. “No instance of vote fraud, or ineligible registration, or ineligible voting, is now, or ever will be ‘insignificant’ to this office,” she wrote.
Cases of alleged voter fraud were passed along to Attorney General Gary King's Office for investigation, which is still ongoing. Meanwhile, Duran's office says scrutiny of the state's voter rolls continues.
Duran's allegations of voter fraud may bolster Gov. Susana Martinez' case against undocumented immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses. Federal voting law requires that people applying for driver's licenses are offered the opportunity to register to vote. It's possible, the SOS report states, that non-citizens “may have been misled into believing that they were eligible to vote, and may have lacked the intent to violate the law.”
Let's make one thing clear: The previous secretary of state, Mary Herrera, failed to do an important part of her job. She didn't follow proper federal procedures that ensure voter rolls are up-to-date and voters are registered at their current addresses.
In August, Duran's office set about correcting this mess by sending out 177,000 postcards to potentially ineligible voters.
Even if people got postcards and didn't return them to Duran's office, they won't be immediately purged from the rolls—all they need to do to keep their status active is vote in a federal election between now and 2014.
The postcards freaked out advocacy groups and Democrats. Some regular voters—including a voting rights activist—received postcards, which raised concerns that the mailing could create confusion and act as another voting obstacle.
The Huffington Post reported in late September that some 110,000 postcards had been returned to Duran's office as undeliverable, with another 60,000 still unaccounted for. So that’s just about all of them.
The Justice Department stated in a Sept. 16 New York Times article that few cases of actual voter impersonation (where a vote is cast in someone else's name) have been uncovered countrywide.
Many right-leaning groups are insistent that the integrity of elections remains in question. Some are taking measures to train poll watchers to help oversee the voting process on Election Day, saying they want to be sure no fraud takes place.
On Sept. 26, nonprofit ProgressNow New Mexico sent someone with a recorder to a Sandoval County Republican Party poll challenger training. The teacher was caught on tape giving out false information, according to ProgressNow. The state Attorney General's Office is investigating complaints about the training and released this statement: “A Sandoval County GOP official reportedly told trainees, among other false information, that they could ask voters to present identification in order to vote. New Mexico law does not require ID to vote.”
Texas-based True the Vote set up shop in New Mexico to conduct poll challenger trainings. Although founded by a Tea Party activist, the group says it’s nonpartisan. A congressional oversight committee launched an investigation into True the Vote’s work in other states, citing concerns about unwarranted voter challenges. But True the Vote says its work is both responsible and legal, calling the congressional investigations “a calculated partisan charade.”