Regardless of whether New Mexico is a swing state this November, and whether Gov. Susana Martinez becomes Mitt Romney's running mate, the Land of Enchantment state remains a place to watch. New Mexico has hardly figured in national news about voter suppression, in part because the state doesn't have a voter ID law that is currently being challenged, and in part because its secretary of state is starting its own massive voter purge only this week, a relatively late date in the wave of purges. But an on-the-ground updated we've received from New Mexico may change our perception. It comes from the latest community journalist to join our Voting Rights Watch 2012 investigation, and it challenges us to really think about what voter participation means.
Meet George Lujan. He's the communications organizer for the SouthWest Organizing Project, and a contributor and editor for El Grito. He lives in the South Valley with his fiancée and their two dogs. While still a teenager, George began registering voters more than 10 years ago, when he worked with SWOP's youth program. Earlier this week, Lujan reported to us that the six counties have run out of English-language registration forms, while Secretary of State Diana Duran--the first Republican to hold the office in 80 years--has focused her attention on a voter-roll purge.
Voter Participation: A Two Way Street
When we hear the term voter participation, we think about people who are engaged to some degree in local politics, and who will mobilize on Election Day to cast a ballot. The image also infers the opposite: eligible voters who do not participate, thereby weakening the democratic process. Voter participation focuses on individual responsibility--but a truly engaged voter base is also the responsibility of the state.
New Mexico has a small population, and because of the vast rural, low income and indigenous communities here, hard data is sometimes hard to come by. In 2011, 1,427,493 people were eligible to register to vote; yet 250,000-600,000 remained unregistered. Voter registration groups see this gap as an opportunity to engage more potential voters in the electoral process. One would think that the state government would be ecstatic to receive a little help in outreaching to those hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans whose voices aren't being heard. Yet through false claims about voter fraud, missing voter registration forms, and an ominous voter purge, the state of New Mexico is the biggest threat to voter participation here this election season.
The registration group Voter Participation Center sent thousands of registration forms to addresses throughout the state, yet its effort to draw new voters was met with harsh criticism by the state. According to KFOX14, Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins said the group's registration drive had "morphed into trying to get everybody in the world registered, including your pet dog or your 13-year-old daughter." The Voter Participation Center admits it doesn't have a perfect list, but that their process does its job of identifying people who are eligible to register.
A letter from Secretary of State Dianna Duran to the Voter Participation Center claimed that their "methods and [their] mailing lists appear to have significant flaws, to the detriment of many of the recipients, as well as the integrity of the voter file in New Mexico." The secretary of state is afraid of the possibility of an ineligible straw man registering to vote, and seems less concerned with the reality of hundreds of thousands of eligible citizens who are not exercising their right to a voice in state government.
Officials could be trying to outreach to more potential voters and engage them in the democratic process. But apparently that risk is just too high, because... someone's dog may get a registration letter? The County Clerk is relying on a tired old myth--that individuals are perpetuating voter fraud. Extensive research shows that voter fraud is almost nonexistent. The real outrage is that at least one-sixth, if not more, of New Mexico's eligible voters aren't even registered.
But what happens when someone who's eligible wants to register? In some New Mexico counties, they can't, because the state has essentially run out of voter registration forms. Secretary of State Duran has an obligation to make sure that elections function smoothly. This includes ensuring that there is broad participation from voters. In order for that to happen, Duran should do everything in her power to make sure every eligible voter is registered and encouraged to show up to the polls.
There's a demand to register new voters, especially from young people who want to participate for the first time in November. But, according to KOB-TV Channel 4, Duran's office ran out of English language registration forms for six counties.
When we contacted Duran's office, we were assured that there was never a shortage, and the story was false. When we contacted Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver, however, she explained that her office requested 70,000 registration forms in January--but was only sent 35,000. When they were down to only 200 registration forms, they found they could no longer supply third party groups with the forms. Toulouse Oliver told Voting Rights Watch "for all intents and purposes, we were down to nothing."
It's bad enough that the Secretary of State's office isn't fulfilling its obligation to print registration forms. But it gets worse. In order to comply with a Department of Justice request to clean up the voter rolls, Duran is now conducting a massive voter purge. This week, the Secretary of State's office is sending out 177,000 postcards to New Mexico residents in an attempt to clean up voter files.
Duran's office says that, in accordance to federal law, if a voter doesn't respond to the postcard, they will still be eligible to vote in November. But this is the same office that ran out of registration forms and denied it. Apparently, the secretary of state's office had enough resources to conduct a purge, but not enough resources to provide registration forms. And the purge doesn't stop there. Duran is demanding the Department of Homeland Security turn over a federal database that identifies non-citizens who are eligible for public assistance, to cross reference to the voter list. The flawed approach may mean that eligible voters, who are mostly Latino, will be scrubbed from the rolls. [Editor's note: As we've reported previously, this is a tactic pioneered in Florida and that is spreading across states doing purges.]
Voter participation is a two way street between the electorate and the state. New Mexico does have a problem with voter participation--the participation of the secretary of state's office and other elected officials who have not shown much interest in the integrity of our elections.