Op-Ed: Voter ID plan threatens rights of voters

By: Maggie Toulouse Oliver 

I am dismayed by the recent calls for mandatory photo voter ID laws in the halls of the New Mexico state Capitol. According to its supporters, voter fraud is a widespread issue. Or, even if not, it is so impactful to our election outcomes that even one case cannot be stomached for the safety of our democracy.

In fact, we’re now seeing proposals for mandatory photo voter ID laws that take these harmful laws to their logical endpoint. A Republican proposal in the New Mexico Senate would explore whether the government should collect DNA samples, fingerprints or iris scans in order for people to vote.

The claims that voter fraud is wreaking havoc on our election processes are still unsubstantiated. However, the focus on this particular issue seems to be drowning out many others that our state should immediately address.

Instead of rolling out tired old policies that restrict, instead of protect, voting rights, we should focus on pursuing solutions to documented, fact-based and curable problems with our elections. These include a broken voter registration system, anemic voter registration rates and dismal turnout, a problematic new statewide vote tabulation system and a severe lack of voter education.

The year 2014 saw one of the lowest turnout elections ever in our state. Further, it has been widely reported that New Mexico’s motor voter law – which legally requires the Motor Vehicle Division to offer voter registration – is broken. This has potentially caused thousands of well-meaning citizens to miss their chance to vote, through no fault of their own.

Tested solutions to the real problems facing our electorate and our democracy are seemingly neglected in favor of photo voter ID.

Voting is a fundamental right. Expanding, not restricting, voting rights should be the goal of all who value our democracy.

Strict photo voter ID laws are costly, and such laws disproportionately restrict the voting rights of minorities, low-income citizens, seniors and military veterans. A federal court in 2014 even found that Wisconsin’s mandatory photo voter ID law was intentionally discriminatory against black and Latino voters. This type of discriminatory restriction on the right to vote flies in the face of our American values and what our forefathers have fought so hard to protect.

The types of restrictive voting laws being proposed in New Mexico’s Legislature are simply badly disguised attempts to discourage voting and should be rejected in favor of real solutions to our state’s real voting problems.

There are many useful ideas on how to protect and expand voting rights upcoming in this legislative session, while at the same time combating election crimes like voter fraud. Allowing same-day voter registration at polling places and vote centers would help alleviate our depressed registration rates. Allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries – or allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote – will civically engage young people earlier in their lives and propel them to remain active voters throughout their lives.

And creating a special prosecutor to specifically handle election crimes would create a scenario where those who wish to illegally compromise our democracy could be dealt with swiftly and to the fullest extent of the law.

We don’t need further restrictions on democracy’s most fundamental right. What we need is more civic engagement and higher voter turnout to ensure equal representation among our citizens.

I hope our legislative leaders in Santa Fe will stand on the side of a free, fair and accessible voting system. Our democracy depends on it.