Monday, February 4, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: The Latest Purge Scare

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Feb. 3, 2013

At least a couple of elections officials in Santa Fe and Albuquerque have some concerns about the way that Secretary of State Dianna Duran wants to clean up New Mexico voter rolls.

Duran last week sent a letter to all county clerks on Jan. 25 outlining a dilemma and how she proposes to handle it.

SOS Dianna Duran The letter first was publicized by the liberal group Progress Now New Mexico, whose director, Pat Davis declared, “Dianna Duran can’t wait to purge voters.”

The elections officials I talked to didn’t go that far. But both said there are potential problems in that letter.

The background: The National Voter Registration Act says there are only two reasons a voter can be removed from the official list of eligible voters for changing an address.

One is if the voter confirms in writing that he or she has moved to a different jurisdiction. The other is if the voter has failed to respond to a confirmation notice and hasn’t voted or appeared to vote from the date of the notice through the date of the next two general elections for federal office.

But here’s where the problem starts: As has been widely reported — even in this column — in 2009 the confirmation notices mailed out by Duran’s predecessor did not comply with federal law, and the sticklers at the Department of Justice ruled it invalid.

Thus, Duran wrote in her letter, “It appears the state may not in 2011 or 2013 lawfully remove voters from its official list of eligible voters based solely on a suspected but unconfirmed change of address.”

Gotta purge somebody: In that letter, Duran notes that the federal law “continues to obligate the state to take reasonable steps as part of its general program of list maintenance to remove persons from the voter rolls who have become ineligible for other reasons, such as death, disqualifying felony conviction, or mental incapacity as provided for by state law.”

She also pointed to a state law that requires individual county boards of registration to meet no later than March 15. What to do?

Duran said the Attorney General’s Office advised her that the boards of registration should meet to “review the list of eligible voters … Based on the AG’s guidance, any individuals identified by the board of registration shall be reviewed and investigated by the Secretary of State …” That investigation would determine whether a voter should be removed from the rolls.

Possible problems: Santa Fe County’s veteran elections director, Denise Lamb, has no problem with thinning out bloated voting lists. She said following the 2008 election, following regular procedure, Santa Fe Country purged between 4,000 and 5,000 names from its voter list.

“But you do have to follow federal law,” Lamb said. She said she’s contacted Duran’s office with a simple question, “Can the duties of the board of registration be expanded without statutory authority?” She said that nowhere in the law does it say that boards of registration report names to the secretary of state for investigation.

Bernalillo County Maggie Oliver, a possible Democratic challenger to Republican Duran in 2014, also has concerns about the new process outlined by Duran. Oliver said last week she also wonders about the practicality of the individual county boards reviewing the entire voter roll — especially in the larger counties.

According to the latest registration figures, there are 430,923 voters in Bernalillo County and 99,452 in Santa Fe County.

But the Attorney General’s Office said there is no legal problem here. “We don’t believe this is an expansion of the board of registration’s duties,” said Phil Sisneros, a spokesman for Attorney General Gary King, who, for the record, is a Democrat.

Regarding the logistics question, Duran’s chief of staff, Ken Ortiz, said his office is “working closely with the AG; we are in the process of developing guidelines for how counties may ensure compliance with both the state and federal laws in question.”