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Jul 8 / Erin Ferns Lee

New Mexico Agrees to Implement “Motor Voter” Law

Many Americans gain access to the ballot when they make a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In fact, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reports that 30 percent of voter registration applications collected between 2007 and 2008 were from people who registered to vote while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses or state IDs. Although every American is supposed to have had access to this opportunity under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) since 1993, such has not always been the case, particularly in New Mexico.

“The NVRA was enacted to ensure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to register to vote,” said Project Vote director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project, Nicole Kovite, in a press release issued yesterday. “By ignoring this vital law, New Mexico was denying this right to thousands of its residents every year.”

Ms. Kovite refers to the “astonishing” 80 percent of MVD offices that were found to be violating the NVRA when Project Vote and partners investigated the state’s compliance in early 2009. In the two-year reporting period from 2007-2008, MVD agencies in New Mexico collected fewer than 3,000 voter registration applications statewide, despite assisting thousands of clients for motor vehicle services. This  prompted a coalition of voting rights groups—including Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Dēmos, as well as the law firms of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg & Ives, DLA Piper LLP (US), and Advocates for Justice and Reform Now, PC— to file suit in 2009.

In a settlement agreement filed last week, the state promised to follow federal law and provide voter registration applications at the offices of New Mexico’s Motor Vehicles Division.

“The settlement requires the Motor Vehicle Division to implement a set of reforms to offer voter registration services to every resident who applies for a driver’s license or state ID card. The MVD must update computer systems, websites, training practices, monitoring, reporting, and other oversight details to offer voter registration with the same degree of assistance as any other MVD license, identification card, or renewal,” the press release states.

“Everyone has a voice and we have to use it or we’re going to lose it,” said Celia Valdez, one of the plaintiffs in the case. Valdez is a New Mexico State University student “who was frustrated by the difficulty of registering to vote every time she moved around Las Cruces and her hometown of Albuquerque,” according to the Associated Press.

“Now, when people go to the MVD, they’re going to be like, ‘Hey, I’m changing my license and I can register to vote, too,’” she said. “I hope people do get registered, and I believe they will, and vote. What more can we ask for?”

While the settlement ensures that New Mexico will implement the “motor voter” requirements of the NVRA, the case related to another aspect of the law—public agency registration—is still pending.

According to the plaintiffs’ release, the state collected just 1,500 voter registration applications from public assistance agencies, despite the fact that the Food Stamp program alone serves more than 103,000 adults per month.

“We applaud New Mexico’s MVD for this agreement, but it is equally important to ensure that voter registration services are provided to citizens who may not visit motor vehicle offices,” said Allegra Chapman, counsel for Dēmos. “All designated state agencies – including public assistance offices serving low-income persons – should follow MVD’s lead and ensure full compliance with the law.”

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