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Voting Rights Advocates Challenge New Mexico’s Voter Registration Law in State Court

Today the Brennan Center for Justice, along with pro bono law firms Davis Polk & Wardwell and Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg & Ives, filed a lawsuit in state court in Albuquerque challenging a New Mexico law that significantly restricts the ability of voter registration groups to register new voters.

July 24, 2008

For Immediate Release
Contact: Jonathan Rosen or Anna Deknatel, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, (646) 452–5637


New Mexico Law Is One of Harshest in the Nation 

Severe Penalties Threaten to Shut Down Voter Registration Drives and Disproportionately Block Minorities from Voting in 2008

New Mexico
– Today the Brennan Center for Justice, along with pro bono law firms Davis Polk & Wardwell and Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg & Ives, filed a lawsuit in state court in Albuquerque challenging a New Mexico law that significantly restricts the ability of voter registration groups to register new voters and threatens to block thousands of eligible New Mexico citizens from registering and voting in the 2008 elections as unconstitutional and inconsistent with federal and state law. Plaintiffs in the case are the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas Inc. (FAWCO), New Mexico Public Interest Research Group (NMPIRG), and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). Plaintiffs typically register thousands of New Mexico citizens (especially low income, minority, disabled, and young citizens) to vote but have suspended or dramatically curtailed their operations as a result of the challenged law.

There are currently over half a million unregistered eligible voters in New Mexico. The suit claims that New Mexico’s law—New Mexico Statutes Annotated § 1–4–49, and New Mexico Administrative Rules §§–10—both enacted in 2005-constitutes an unconstitutional burden on free speech and association by impeding civic groups from helping eligible voters to register.

“The law aggressively discourages civic organizations from helping New Mexico citizens to exercise their basic right to vote, and threatens voter registration drives across the state,” Robby Rodriguez from SWOP stated.

“New Mexico has enacted one of the most chilling and restrictive voter registration laws in the country,” stated Wendy Weiser, the Brennan Center’s Director of Voting Rights and Elections and one of the attorneys in the case. “In a year in which unprecedented numbers of Americans are interested in participating in our democracy, New Mexico should be welcoming new voters, not putting up barriers to their participation,” she added.

“This law will effectively keep many voter registration drives away from the communities where they are needed most and prevent the enfranchisement of thousands of would-be voters across New Mexico,” Katryn Fraher from NMPIRG stated.

“By making it difficult to conduct voter registration drives, New Mexico’s law will especially reduce the participation of new voters and eligible voters from minority and low income communities,” stated Neal Potischman from Davis Polk & Wardwell, one of the attorneys in the case.

“Americans with disabilities will be especially hard hit by the loss of much-needed voter registration assistance because of New Mexico’s harsh law,” added James Dickson of AAPD.

The challenged law requires voter registration groups in New Mexico to meet one of the shortest deadlines in the country—48 hours—for the return of completed forms, and imposes hefty civil and criminal penalties, including fines and even jail time, if voter registration volunteers and employees do not adhere to restrictive and cumbersome rules for signing up new voters.

Before registering voters, each volunteer (or employee) must first pre-register and submit an affidavit to the state and, in certain key counties, go through an in-person, hour-long training that is conducted only during business hours and only a few times a month. Volunteers are then limited to collecting no more than fifty forms at one time, unless they get a special dispensation from election officials. Because each form is “tracked” to an individual, every volunteer must pick up his or her own forms from election offices, which means that registration drive coordinators cannot pick up forms for their volunteers, even if the volunteers intend to help for just one day of the month.

Once an individual conducting voter registration has obtained a completed registration form, he or she has only forty-eight hours to return it to county or state officials. Most prohibitively, if an individual “intentionally” violates any of these rules, he or she is guilty of a criminal act, which may be punishable with a jail sentence. Civil penalties of up to $5,000 can be assessed under a “strict liability” legal standard, meaning no extenuating circumstance—a car breakdown, a hurricane—will excuse failure to submit a completed form within 48 hours.

“Non-profit organizations like ours rely extensively on volunteers to help when they can, but if the act of volunteering becomes a complicated and risky activity that could land you in jail, there won’t be volunteers,” stated Robby Rodriguez from SWOP.

In the last election cycle, before the enactment of the law challenged today, third-party voter registration groups registered thousands of new voters in New Mexico. Over 100,000 voters reported having been registered by a drive that year, according to the U.S. Census. Overall, about 15% of all registered voters in New Mexico registered through a drive.

The challenged law was enacted in early 2005, after the 2004 election cycle during which then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was pressured to bring prosecutions for voter registration fraud despite the lack of evidence to support those prosecutions.

“The law challenged in this case simply punishes well-meaning civic groups and is not at all tailored to address any real problems,” said John Boyd, one of the lawyers in the case. “There is no evidence that improperly filled-out or even fraudulent voter registration forms, if someone could actually find one, has ever resulted in any name being improperly added to the voter rolls or any ineligible person voting. Voter fraud is a myth, perpetrated to mislead the public and intimidate voter registration groups.”

The challenge to New Mexico’s law comes in the wake of challenges to similar state laws around the country, in which the Brennan Center has played a lead role. In 2006, a federal judge in Florida blocked the state’s law restricting voter registration drives as unconstitutional, and in that same year federal judges in Ohio and Georgia blocked enforcement of those states’ restrictive laws governing third-party voter registration drives.

Colorado, Maryland, and Missouri also enacted laws restricting community-based voter registration drives in the wake of the 2004 election. Other states, including Washington, California, Minnesota, and Virginia, also have such laws on the books.

A copy of the complaint can be downloaded here.