New Mexico Law Is One of Harshest in the Nation - Severe Penalties Threaten to Shut Down Voter Registration Drives and Disproportionately Block Minorities from Voting in 2008
A copy of the complaint can be downloaded here.
Today the Brennan Center for
Justice, along with pro bono law firms Davis Polk & Wardwell and
Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg & Ives, filed a lawsuit in state
court in Albuquerque challenging a New Mexico law that significantly
restricts the ability of voter registration groups to register new
voters and threatens to block thousands of eligible New Mexico citizens
from registering and voting in the 2008 elections as unconstitutional
and inconsistent with federal and state law. Plaintiffs in the case are
the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), the
Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas Inc. (FAWCO), New Mexico
Public Interest Research Group (NMPIRG), and the Southwest Organizing
Project (SWOP). Plaintiffs typically register thousands of New Mexico
citizens (especially low income, minority, disabled, and young
citizens) to vote but have suspended or dramatically curtailed their
operations as a result of the challenged law.
There are currently over half a million unregistered eligible voters
in New Mexico. The suit claims that New Mexico's law—New Mexico
Statutes Annotated § 1-4-49, and New Mexico Administrative Rules §§
184.108.40.206-10—both enacted in 2005-constitutes an unconstitutional
burden on free speech and association by impeding civic groups from
helping eligible voters to register.
"The law aggressively discourages civic organizations from helping New
Mexico citizens to exercise their basic right to vote, and threatens
voter registration drives across the state," Robby Rodriguez from SWOP
"New Mexico has enacted one of the most chilling and restrictive
voter registration laws in the country," stated Wendy Weiser, the
Brennan Center's Director of Voting Rights and Elections and one of the
attorneys in the case. "In a year in which unprecedented numbers of
Americans are interested in participating in our democracy, New Mexico
should be welcoming new voters, not putting up barriers to their
participation," she added.
"This law will effectively keep many voter registration drives away
from the communities where they are needed most and prevent the
enfranchisement of thousands of would-be voters across New Mexico,"
Katryn Fraher from NMPIRG stated.
"By making it difficult to conduct voter registration drives, New
Mexico's law will especially reduce the participation of new voters and
eligible voters from minority and low income communities," stated Neal
Potischman from Davis Polk & Wardwell, one of the attorneys in the
"Americans with disabilities will be especially hard hit by the loss
of much-needed voter registration assistance because of New Mexico's
harsh law," added James Dickson of AAPD.
>The challenged law requires voter registration groups in New Mexico
to meet one of the shortest deadlines in the country—48 hours—for the
return of completed forms, and imposes hefty civil and criminal
penalties, including fines and even jail time, if voter registration
volunteers and employees do not adhere to restrictive and cumbersome
rules for signing up new voters.
Before registering voters, each volunteer (or employee) must first
pre-register and submit an affidavit to the state and, in certain key
counties, go through an in-person, hour-long training that is conducted
only during business hours and only a few times a month. Volunteers are
then limited to collecting no more than fifty forms at one time, unless
they get a special dispensation from election officials. Because each
form is "tracked" to an individual, every volunteer must pick up his or
her own forms from election offices, which means that registration
drive coordinators cannot pick up forms for their volunteers, even if
the volunteers intend to help for just one day of the month.
>Once an individual conducting voter registration has obtained a
completed registration form, he or she has only forty-eight hours to
return it to county or state officials. Most prohibitively, if an
individual "intentionally" violates any of these rules, he or she is
guilty of a criminal act, which may be punishable with a jail sentence.
Civil penalties of up to $5,000 can be assessed under a "strict
liability" legal standard, meaning no extenuating circumstance—a car
breakdown, a hurricane—will excuse failure to submit a completed form
within 48 hours.
"Non-profit organizations like ours rely extensively on volunteers to
help when they can, but if the act of volunteering becomes a
complicated and risky activity that could land you in jail, there won't
be volunteers," stated Robby Rodriguez from SWOP.
In the last election cycle, before the enactment of the law
challenged today, third-party voter registration groups registered
thousands of new voters in New Mexico. Over 100,000 voters reported
having been registered by a drive that year, according to the U.S.
Census. Overall, about 15% of all registered voters in New Mexico
registered through a drive.
The challenged law was enacted in early 2005, after the 2004
election cycle during which then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was
pressured to bring prosecutions for voter registration fraud despite
the lack of evidence to support those prosecutions.
"The law challenged in this case simply punishes well-meaning civic
groups and is not at all tailored to address any real problems," said
John Boyd, one of the lawyers in the case. "There is no evidence that
improperly filled-out or even fraudulent voter registration forms, if
someone could actually find one, has ever resulted in any name being
improperly added to the voter rolls or any ineligible person voting.
Voter fraud is a myth, perpetrated to mislead the public and intimidate
voter registration groups."
The challenge to New Mexico's law comes in the wake of challenges to
similar state laws around the country, in which the Brennan Center has
played a lead role. In 2006, a federal judge in Florida blocked the
state's law restricting voter registration drives as unconstitutional,
and in that same year federal judges in Ohio and Georgia blocked
enforcement of those states' restrictive laws governing third-party
voter registration drives.
Colorado, Maryland, and Missouri also enacted laws restricting
community-based voter registration drives in the wake of the 2004
election. Other states, including Washington, California, Minnesota,
and Virginia, also have such laws on the books.
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