Daniel Nichanian

This article is part of a state-based series on disenfranchisement.

The effort to fully abolish felony disenfranchisement in New Mexico took a first legislative step in the state House on Jan. 25. The State Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee voted to move House Bill 57 forward. This legislation, previewed by the Political Report last month, would have New Mexico join Maine and Vermont as states that do not disenfranchise people who are convicted of a felony conviction, including people who are presently incarcerated. The bill breaks the mold of prior nationwide reforms that narrowed disenfranchisement rules rather than eliminating them. The bill now moves to the House Judiciary Committee.

However, the committee voted to pass the bill without a recommendation based on a request by Democratic Representative Daymon Ely, who spoke before the vote to say that he did not approve of the bill’s scope and wanted the opportunity to narrow it later. Ely said that he did not support enfranchising people who are incarcerated, but would approve restoring the rights of individuals upon their release. New Mexico currently disenfranchises individuals who are on probation and on parole. “We can take this bill, and use it in a way that makes a fundamental difference to people who have served their time,” Ely said.

Representative Gail Chasey, the Democratic sponsor of HB 57, agreed to support moving the bill forward without a recommendation so that the debate can continue on another forum. “This is a big jump from A to Z,” she said during the hearing. “We’ve been doing this since slavery was abolished… We are going way way back there. That’s the change, and I appreciate that some people can’t get there that quickly. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss it further in Judiciary.”

Five Democrats (Chasey, Ely, Georgene Louis, Wonda Johnson, and Derrick Lente) voted in favor of moving the bill forward; Louis, Johnson, and Lente did not speak before the vote. Three Republicans (Greg Nibert, William Rehm, and Martin Zamora) voted against it. Nilbert said that he wanted a narrower bill that only dealt with the rights of people who are already eligible to vote but encounter practical obstacles to doing so. “My proposal would be to fix the system,” he said. “We want everyone to participate in the voting process who is eligible to do so… I believe there are a lot of problems if we allow voting in the prisons.”

Selinda Guerrero, an organizer with Millions for Prisoners, told me after the committee’s initial hearing about HB 57 on Wednesday that these hearings were the culmination of years of advocacy. “This has been more than a year and a half of planting seed,” she said. “I cannot believe that we are here, this is so incredible.”