The fight for voting rights remains as critical as ever. Politicians across the country continue to engage in voter suppression, efforts that include additional obstacles to registration, cutbacks on early voting, and burdensome voter identification requirements. But in New Mexico we have a chance to turn the tide to expand and protect voting rights for all of us in passing the New Mexico Voting Rights Act. 

Nayomi Valdez, director of public policy at the ACLU of New Mexico, took some time to answer questions about this critical legislation.

ACLU of New Mexico: Why is it important that we pass the New Mexico Voting Rights Act?

Nayomi Valdez: In a time where the fundamental right to vote is under attack across the country, New Mexico can be an example to the rest of the nation of what democracy and elections should look like. Protecting voting rights is essential to continuing our democracy and ensuring New Mexicans’ voices are heard at the polls.

Now, more than ever, we must safeguard and expand access to the ballot box. The New Mexico Voting Rights Act would ensure that people in New Mexico have the opportunity to safely and equitably cast a vote.

ACLU-NM: What does the bill do?

NV: First, this bill automatically restores the voting rights of those convicted of a felony who are not currently incarcerated. This bill also supports the rights of Native voters by expanding the time for when Native tribes, nations, and pueblos can request alternate voting sites. The NMVRA also improves access by extending the early voting period and allowing for people to sign up to receive a mail ballot for each statewide election.

ACLU-NM: What is the importance of voting rights restoration for those with felony convictions?

NV: A recent study indicated that over 17,000 eligible voters in New Mexico are silenced due to felony convictions. Silencing those voices has no positive outcome for our state and that erasure and dehumanization only deepens the wounds of systematically disenfranchised community members. Because of racial disparities in the criminal legal system, this means people of color are over-represented in being disenfranchised due to felony convictions. 

Taking away the right to vote serves no purpose. It does not deter crime and it reinforces the belief that total rehabilitation is impossible. In fact, studies show that when people are civically engaged and have a stake in their community, they are less likely to inflict harm on themselves and others. Restoring voting rights to all of our community members would be a step towards dismantling institutional racism in New Mexico.

ACLU-NM: How does the bill support the voting rights of Native voters?

NV: New Mexico’s 23 Native tribes, nations, and pueblos make up 11% of our state’s population. If we are to have a fair and free democracy, we cannot leave anyone behind, especially not New Mexico’s Native communities. Improving access to voting for Native communities means increasing collaboration between tribal leaders and election clerks, standardizing early voting on tribal lands, and guaranteeing much-needed resources for polling places and secure drop boxes. 

Expanding drop-off sites would allow our Native communities to use already existing infrastructure to collect ballots. Also, clearing up language around who is allowed to collect ballots is absolutely crucial for Native families. The bottom line is we cannot improve New Mexico’s democracy without improving access for Native communities and it is essential that tribal leaders have a fair say in what the future looks like.