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Election, voter registration laws bring challenges

“Our technology, our new voter registration system, is not ready for it,” Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko says about a new law that will require same-day voter registration by 2021. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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New Mexico’s county clerks are facing significant challenges with the new election and voter registration laws, according to several people who gathered Thursday to discuss the outcomes of the 2019 legislative session on county governments.

Panel members for a Thursday New Mexico Council meeting at the Chaves County Administrative Center are, from left, Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, Rep. Greg Nibert, NMC Executive Director Steve Kopelman, NMC President Rebecca Long, NMC Government Relations Representative Brian Moore and Rep. James Townsend. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

“Every convenience center that you have is going to be required to have voter registration at each one of those polling stations (by 2021), which the state of New Mexico cannot handle at this moment,” said Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko. “Can it handle it in 2021? That is yet to be seen.”

That issue was just one that concerned county officials about a number of the 281 bills passed and signed this year, with most of them taking effect July 1.

The discussion occurred at the Chaves County Administrative Center during a meeting convened by New Mexico Counties (NMC), formerly known as the New Mexico Association of Counties. The group has been holding meetings throughout the state with county officials. State legislators from the area, Rep. Candy Ezzell (R-District 58), Rep. Greg Nibert (R-59) and Rep. James Townsend (R-54), were on the panel and a couple of New Mexico Cabinet secretaries attended.

‘Challenging’ session, say some

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Counties did benefit from number of bills (see sidebar), but some panelists and county representatives had complaints about how much state revenue was spent and how much taxes increased. They also talked about their concerns with some controversial bills, including the gun background check law opposed by most sheriffs and Rep. Townsend.

“The session brought challenges,” said Townsend. “Overall, it had many impacts on the counties that are positive. I think in the long run the challenges may outweigh the benefits. … But with that said, I think there are many opportunities for improvements.”

Some of the major concerns had to do with bills affecting elections and voter registration.

Chaves County Clerk Kunko said both HB 407, the Election Laws 50-Year Tune-Up Act, and SB 672, the Early and Automatic Voter Registration Act, contain provisions that will be difficult and perhaps costly to implement.

He said clerks generally supported HB 407, but had problems with portions of it, including the section dealing with precinct sizes.

“I know that most of you commissioners have already been approached by your county clerks because we are out of compliance with the size of our precincts,” he said. “We have until, I think, the end of July to make those changes.”

The legislation requires that boundaries be adjusted or precincts split if more than 750 voters in a precinct cast ballots during the previous general election or if more than 2,500 people live within the existing precinct boundary.

Kunko said that will affect about eight precincts in Chaves County, while more populated counties will have more precincts in those categories. Because all precincts are required to have polling places or mail-in systems for elections, the law likely will cost counties additional money.

However, Kunko expressed even more concern about SB 672. He said county clerks tried to work with legislators on a way to increase voter registration opportunities after it was made clear that some type of same-day registration bill was likely to pass. SB 672 represents a compromise, but also presents some problems, Kunko said.

For the next two years, the law allows people to register at clerk’s offices during early voting periods. But by 2021, counties are expected to be able to register people to vote at polling places on election day.

“Our technology, our new voter registration system, is not ready for it,” Kunko said.

Rep. Nibert said he is asking county clerks to let him know if they are having trouble during the next two years during the early voting period so that the law can be fixed. He added that he thinks it is the responsibility of the Secretary of State Office to provide the hardware and software to enable same-day registration at polling sites.

“I am expecting you all to let me know how this impacting your office,” Nibert said, “because that is a message we need to take back to the Legislature.”

But he explained that SB 672 also requires that a special poll worker be at each polling place to sign up voters on election day, a cost that will be borne by counties.

“This again is another unfunded mandate where the state is pushing down on counties requiring them to do something,” he said. “The expenditures to have the person on-site to register voters on election day is going to be on your nickel. I am sorry that we did that to you, but that’s what was passed in the last amendment to this bill.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.