Regardless of whether New Mexico is a swing state this November, and whether Governor Susana Martinez becomes Mitt Romney’s running mate, the Land of Enchantment state remains a place to watch. New Mexico has hardly figured in national news about voter suppression, in part because the state doesn’t have a voter ID law that is currently being challenged, and in part because its secretary of state is starting its own massive voter purge only this week, a relatively late date in the wave of purges. But an on-the-ground updated we’ve received from New Mexico may change our perception. It comes from the latest community journalist to join our Voting Rights Watch 2012 investigation, and it challenges us to really think about what voter participation means.
Meet George Lujan. He’s the communications organizer for the SouthWest Organizing Project, and a contributor and editor for El Grito. He lives in the South Valley with his fiancée and their two dogs. While still a teenager, George began registering voters more than ten years ago, when he worked with SWOP’s youth program. Earlier this week, Lujan reported to us that the six counties have run out of English-language registration forms, while Secretary of State Diana Duran—the first Republican to hold the office in eighty years—has focused her attention on a voter-roll purge.
Voter Participation: A Two-Way Street
When we hear the term voter participation, we think about people who are engaged to some degree in local politics, and who will mobilize on Election Day to cast a ballot. The image also infers the opposite: eligible voters who do not participate, thereby weakening the democratic process. Voter participation focuses on individual responsibility—but a truly engaged voter base is also the responsibility of the state.
New Mexico has a small population, and because of the vast rural, low-income and indigenous communities here, hard data is sometimes hard to come by. In 2011, 1,427,493 people were eligible to register to vote; yet 250,000–600,000 remained unregistered. Voter registration groups see this gap as an opportunity to engage more potential voters in the electoral process. One would think that the state government would be ecstatic to receive a little help in outreaching to those hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans whose voices aren’t being heard. Yet through false claims about voter fraud, missing voter registration forms and an ominous voter purge, the state of New Mexico is the biggest threat to voter participation here this election season.
The registration group Voter Participation Center sent thousands of registration forms to addresses throughout the state, yet its effort to draw new voters was met with harsh criticism by the state. According to KFOX14, Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins said the group’s registration drive had “morphed into trying to get everybody in the world registered, including your pet dog or your 13-year-old daughter.” The Voter Participation Center admits it doesn’t have a perfect list, but that their process does its job of identifying people who are eligible to register.
A letter from Secretary of State Dianna Duran to the Voter Participation Center claimed that their “methods and [their] mailing lists appear to have significant flaws, to the detriment of many of the recipients, as well as the integrity of the voter file in New Mexico.” The secretary of state is afraid of the possibility of an ineligible straw man registering to vote, and seems less concerned with the reality of hundreds of thousands of eligible citizens who are not exercising their right to a voice in state government.