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SANTA FE – Democratic legislators in the House resurrected parts of a broad voting rights bill Tuesday by grafting it onto separate election legislation, triggering bitter protest from opponents of the bill.
The move came after Senate Republicans used a parliamentary procedure in their chamber last week to block a vote on Senate Bill 8 – legislation that would establish a permanent absentee voter list, restore the voting rights of felons upon release from incarceration and require ballot drop boxes in counties.
With the bill halted on the Senate side, House Democrats responded with their own procedural move Tuesday, blending parts of three election bills – including Senate Bill 8 – into one measure, Senate Bill 144.
The House Judiciary Committee adopted amendments combining all three bills into one 160-page measure and sent it to the House floor Tuesday for further consideration.
The move keeps alive, at least for now, much of the voter access provisions backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and other Democratic leaders.
Republican Rep. Greg Nibert of Roswell said it was unconstitutional to roll the three bills together – a move that stretched what had been a two-page bill prohibiting threats against county and state election workers into something exceeding 160 pages.
The state Constitution, he said, requires that each bill focus on just one topic.
“This is crossing the line,” Nibert said.
Rep. Daymon Ely, a Corrales Democrat who sponsored the amendments, defended the revised election bill.
It’s common, he said, for lawmakers to take bills that cover the same topic and roll them together into one proposal to avoid duplication.
The new proposal, Ely said, simply melds three bills that have been thoroughly vetted by legislative committees, without adding anything new. Much of what was in the other bills was dropped, he said, narrowing the focus of what had been proposed earlier.
“There are people on all sides of the aisle that are going to be disappointed about things that aren’t in here,” Ely said, describing it as a compromise.
Sen. Katy Duhigg, an Albuquerque Democrat and cosponsor of the revised bill, said it made sense to develop one election measure rather than handling separate proposals that might touch on the same areas of law.
“There are a lot of good policy reasons to take a comprehensive approach rather than a piecemeal one,” she said.
Opponents blasted the revised bill. They said the amendments made it difficult for the public to follow along and that it was inappropriate to bypass the usual step of making each bill clear a series of committees and floor votes on its own.
“We’re not supposed to be deceived, and that’s what you’re doing,” former state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, a Republican from Albuquerque, told her former colleagues in the public hearing.
Republican lawmakers said they had too little time to evaluate the proposal. They noted that Senate Bill 8 had been through Senate committees, not House panels, meaning they hadn’t had a formal chance to scrutinize it until Tuesday.
Procedural conflict aside, the new version of the legislation, Senate Bill 144, calls for:
• Establishing a permanent absentee voter list, allowing a person to sign up once to get absentee ballots in future elections.
• Restoring voting rights of people convicted of a felony when they leave incarceration rather than requiring them to complete probation or parole.
• Requiring training for poll challengers and watchers.
• Directing each county to offer two secured, monitored drop boxes for absentee ballots returned by voters.
• Creating a Native American voting rights act.
• Making it a crime to threaten or intimidate county clerks’ or secretary of state’s employees, a change intended to protect election workers.
The proposal doesn’t include earlier provisions that would have allowed 16-year-olds to vote in school and city elections, for example, and it doesn’t create automated registration of new voters at Motor Vehicle Division offices.
If the bill were passed by the full House, it would go back to the Senate for agreement on the changes made by the House – no guarantee given the scope of the changes.
The elections debate is playing out across the country, with some states tightening voting rules and Democrats unable to pass legislation at the federal level.