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Groups sue over New Mexico voter registration law

Resource type: News

Miami Herald (Associated Press) |

Original Source By SUE MAJOR HOLMES Voter rights advocates want a judge to overturn New Mexico’s law on registering voters, saying it has a chilling effect on registration drives and groups’ ability to encourage people to participate in the political process. The lawsuit, filed Thursday in state district court on behalf of four organizations, asks that the 2005 law be declared unconstitutional and that Secretary of State Mary Herrera be barred from enforcing it. The “unduly onerous law” places an unconstitutional burden on the rights of free speech and association by hindering groups that help people register, and is inconsistent with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, the organizations contend. The secretary of state and county clerks have separate systems to verify eligible voters and to prevent registration “from becoming a mechanism for fraudulent voting,” the lawsuit said. James Flores, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the office was reviewing the complaint and would confer with its lawyers. Similar laws have been challenged in other states. The League of Women Voters of Florida sued in April over a law that imposes fines if groups do not turn in voter registrations by deadlines. Florida enacted the law after an earlier law was declared unconstitutional in 2006. A federal judge in Ohio set aside provisions of Ohio’s election reform law in 2006, saying rules seemed to set up barriers to registering voters. New Mexico’s law limits organizations to 50 registration forms at a time, requires groups to record registrars with the secretary of state and provide information on them and give registrations to county clerks within 48 hours. Registering ineligible voters is subject to a $500 fine and-or up to six months in jail. “There are a lot of registration activities that would normally be going on right now,” said John Boyd, one of the attorneys filing the lawsuit. “Some groups are braving the risk of criminal penalties and fighting their way through the new requirements, but other groups, particularly volunteer groups, are not willing to risk criminal penalties.” The complaint was filed by the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas Inc., New Mexico Public Interest Research Group and the SouthWest Organizing Project. They conduct nonpartisan registration partly to increase the political power of certain groups, including “the disabled, the poor, racial minorities, students and the disenfranchised,” but the law is forcing them to halt or dramatically cut their efforts, the lawsuit said. “It’s definitely hurt our numbers,” said Katryn Fraher of the Albuquerque-based Public Interest Research Group. Each time PIRG uses up the 50 forms allowed, it has to shut down registration operations to return the forms to the clerk and get new ones, she said. Denise Lamb, former longtime head of the state Elections Bureau and now chief deputy clerk for Santa Fe County, favors the 48-hour limit. In her experience, organizations – even political parties – not turning in completed registration forms “was one of the biggest causes of voters being disenfranchised,” she said. “…I think turning in the forms in 48 hours is a small thing to ask when weighed against a person’s right to vote.” Still, she said, the law is “ineffective in a lot of ways.” New Mexico, for example, has no control over people using a federal voter registration form that states are required to accept and which is available on a Web site, she said. Before the law, Fraher said it wasn’t difficult to get University of New Mexico students to volunteer to register their peers. But requirements on registrars and the difficulty of returning forms to the county clerk have had an impact, she said. A required class she attended for registrars was nerve-racking with its emphasis on criminal charges for turning in forms with something wrong, Fraher said. “We had some students actually go down to the class and then never come back,” she said. Boyd said the law punishes well-meaning civic groups without addressing any real problem. “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,” he said. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which helped file the New Mexico lawsuit, also was involved in the challenges in Florida and Ohio. © 2008 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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