In its final hours before adjournment, the 2005 session of the New Mexico Legislature completed action on a comprehensive election reform measure and sent it to the governor. The measure received no Republican support; not a single senator or representative from the minority party voted in favor of it, but it passed nonetheless.
The reason for this lemming-like refusal to sign on to what election reform advocates are calling a significant step forward has to do with a form of partisan myopia that afflicts the GOP in our state. To a person, they were willing to ignore (and actually reject) all the other reasonable and justifiable improvements contained in the bill ... just because they got outflanked on the issue of voter identification.
To hear their spokespeople tell, the only change needed in how New Mexico conducts elections would be to begin requiring voter identification cards. They claim they polled voters around the state shortly after the fall 2004 elections, and that their poll results indicated almost universal support for requiring voters to show photo identification cards before being allowed to cast their ballots.
But Democrats (and especially Greens) had a very different list of changes needed in election law. Their reforms were based on what had transpired both in New Mexico and around the country in those most questioned of elections.
You remember last November's results, the ones that guaranteed the Bush administration would live another four years, time enough to stuff the federal bench, knock the props out from under Social Security, start drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness, deepen the national debt by a few trillion and, oh, yeah, invade Iran, North Korea or whatever other "axis of evil" nations stand in our way.
Well, it was those Ohio, Florida and New Mexico results, so critical to the Bush victory (and also so counter to exit polls in those states that had previously been right-on accurate) that called down from heaven the demand for several major electoral improvements. I'm surprised the GOP pollsters didn't pick up those cries—my own e-mail was certainly overwhelmed with calls for them.
"Voter verifiable paper trails" were one such reform. "Automatic audits" of the electronic voting machines now in such wide use were another on the list of demands. A third was to make the use of "provisional ballots" fairer and easier to understand.
And the final one was to deal with the widespread tactic of registering voters through misrepresentation and simply tossing out their registrations, leaving them officially unable to cast a ballot—but believing they would be able to vote at the polls ... right up to the time they were turned away, when it was too late to do anything about it.
So, while the Republicans argued that only voter identification requirements needed to be added to the law, Democrats came to the table carrying at least four other major amendments that their constituents were up in arms about. The GOP election reform proposal was a three page bill. The Democrats' weighed in finally at 93 dense pages.
Early in the session, the Republicans garnered lots of newspaper ink with their claim that Democrats were against voter identification. Their argument was superficially simple: "Hey, if you have to show a driver's license or other photo ID to rent a video at Blockbuster or to cash a check, why shouldn't you to vote for president?"
In the United States, thank God, we long ago stopped treating voting as a privilege reserved for those with the wherewithal to "earn" suffrage. Those days ended with the abolition of the poll tax. But requiring a photo identification card could mean that some small percentage of poor, marginalized, homeless voters would be turned away from trying to vote, simply because they couldn't afford the fee charged to prepare the photo ID.
That was what was ruled unconstitutional long ago by the Supreme Court when it outlawed the poll tax, the method by which states, primarily in the Deep South, kept millions of poor black citizens from voting.
Sure, in the country today almost everyone has a photo ID. But the operative word is "almost." Even if only 2 percent don't, that should not be used to block their suffrage. We should have long ago moved past the attempt to erect artificial barriers to the electoral process. It is not a privilege to vote in this country, it is simply a right, a duty, for every citizen.
There is a voter identification requirement in the new legislation Gov. Richardson will be asked to sign. It is one the Republicans mock as "meaningless" because it provides for alternatives to a photo ID. But it passes the key tests for a voter identification system. It lets all eligible voters in and it ensures the person voting is the same person as the one who registered.
If you don't have a photo ID, you can show the registration card issued by the county clerk or you can, as a last resort, give your name and the last four digits of your Social Security number. Simple. Honest. Fair.
We don't need to make it more complicated than that unless for some reason there are groups of voters you don't think should be permitted to participate. And that's a corner the Republicans better stay away from.