CINCINNATI (TDB) -- Some of the groups that tangled with Ohio's former Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell over voter suppression issues have similar concerns about Bill Richardson's New Mexico. They have openly questioned whether state enforcement of a ballot access law has been shortchanged for low-income citizens, The Daily Bellwether has learned. This poses a potentially difficult political situation for the state's governor, Democratic presidential candidate Richardson, because civil-right lawsuits have been threatened over reputed violations of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
So far, Richardson is not directly implicated. But New Mexico's top election official, Democratic Secretary of State Mary Herrera, has been warned public assistance agencies in the state failed to actively offer voter registration services as required by federal law.
Herrera is a Richardson supporter and is listed as one of his key presidential backers. As governor, he would also have some symbolic responsibility for making sure all citizens have access to ballots, and perhaps a legal duty, too.
Project Vote and Demos sent letters to Herrera and New Mexico's Human Services Director Pamela S. Hyde, a member of Richardson's cabinet, that described the purported legal violations and said litigation would ensue without corrective action by later this summer. The letters went out last month:
"Substantial evidence demonstrates New Mexico's failure to provide mandatory voter registration services at public assistance offices as required by the NVRA. For example, the state's most recent statistical data for voter registration at public assistance agencies indicates that, from a voting eligible population of over 1.2 million and from 559,162 applications and recertifications for Food Stamps (just one of many programs for which voter registration services are required) New Mexico's public assistance agencies registered only 3,719 voters in 2001-2002. Not only is this number low, it represents a 78 percent decrease in registrations at public assistance agencies since implementation of the NVRA in 1995."
In January, Project Vote said it surveyed welfare offices in New Mexico and found "it clear that New Mexico is disregarding its obligations under the National Voter Registration Act. Project Vote found none of the offices it visited appeared to be distributing mail voter registration applications, assisting applicants with completion of the form, or informing applicants in writing about their options. Virtually none of the applications who were interviewed after applying for or recertifying their eligibility for benefits said they had been offered an opportunity to register to vote."
The full text of the letter, dated June 12, is here. So far, this has not made a ripple in the presidential campaign or national politics. It should because Democrats have been aggressive in Ohio and Florida in registering low-income voters and making sure they have access to the polls. It was a major complaint against GOP conservative Ken Blackwell, whose years as Ohio's chief elections officer were repeatedly hit with Democratic criticism that he wanted to keep poor people from voting. Those poor people were seen by the Democrats as a source of political support because they were not viewed as likely Republicans voters.
Richardson's state, like Ohio, swings in national politics, and its electoral votes could play a key role in deciding the outcome of the 2008 presidential race, assuming the race is close. The possibility that poor people have been disenfrancised because of lax application of the National Voter Registration Act carries a whiff of scandal. Will it turn into a brush fire? There's a chance it could because Richardson has portrayed himself as a competent administrator who is in tune with core Democratic Party values.
But if his state has not been aggressive in helping its low-income residents to vote, that image takes a knock.
Here's some background by another voting rights group, VotersUnite.org about balloting in Richardson's state.