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Request to ID All First-Time Voters Denied

By Dan McKay
Albequerque Journal Staff Writer  08 September 2004
    A state district judge denied a bid Tuesday to require tens of thousands of first-time voters in New Mexico to show identification before casting ballots this fall.
    In rejecting the request for a preliminary injunction— brought as part of a lawsuit filed last month— state District Judge Robert L. Thompson suggested his decision was based partly on the amount of time before the Nov. 2 election.
    He referred to the request for IDs as an "11th-hour lawsuit."
    "There has been no showing of irreparable harm by the plaintiffs at this time," Thompson said. He added that he expects to put his decision in writing sometime today.
    The ruling means that, for now, only first-time voters who registered by mail must show identification before casting their ballots.
    The lawsuit filed last month, which was backed by lawyers active in the Republican Party, would have broadened the ID requirement beyond mail registrations, which the plaintiffs say is required under a 2003 state law.
    Voters who had signed up at registration drives also would have had to show IDs under the plaintiffs' interpretation.
    Thompson didn't specifically say Tuesday how he thought the law should be interpreted, but in a hearing last month, he said the statute in question "really is clear on its face" and that he was ready to order more voters to show IDs.
    That order was put on hold pending the hearing that wrapped up Tuesday.
    Plaintiffs attorney Pat Rogers said the decision could be appealed to a higher court, but he needed to consult with his clients. The half-dozen plaintiffs include Republicans, a Democrat, a Green and a man whose 13-year-old-son somehow became registered to vote.
    The dispute revolves around House Bill 383, which went into effect last year. The plaintiffs said the law requires all first-time registrants who didn't register with a county clerk to show some form of ID.
    State election officials interpret the law to mean that only first-time voters who register by mail have to present an ID before casting their ballots.
    The law reads: "If the form is not submitted in person by the applicant and the applicant is registering for the first time in New Mexico, the applicant must submit with the form a copy of a current and valid photo identification, utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document that shows the name and address of the applicant; and the applicant must submit the required identification when he votes in person or absentee in person."
    State Election Director Denise Lamb said 112,000 voters— or roughly 11 percent to 12 percent of the voters in New Mexico— would have been affected by the broader ID requirements. But for now, only voters who registered by mail must show an ID before voting. Election officials didn't know Tuesday how many that will be.
    Attorneys for the two sides clashed repeatedly at Tuesday's hearing. Republicans said the integrity of the election was at stake, while Democrats said there was no evidence of fraud and the ID requirement could run afoul of civil-rights protections.
    Attorney David A. Garcia said a preliminary injunction was needed to force election officials to carry out the law, which "itself is very clear."
    As evidence of possible fraud, Garcia pointed to the 13-year-old who ended up on voter rolls in Bernalillo County.
    "Once a vote is cast fraudulently," he said, "it cannot be undone."
    Democratic Party and state attorneys said it was too late to change how the Secretary of State's Office and county clerks have interpreted the law.
    Luis Stelzner, an attorney for the Democrats, suggested the court could run afoul of civil rights if it required IDs for some voters but not others. It doesn't make sense, for example, to require IDs for first-time voters who registered at a public library, but not for voters who signed up at the clerk's office, he said.
    "There's no rational basis for treating them differently," Stelzner said.
    He also said the court risked creating confusion by changing plans for how the election is to be carried out and that judges "must be extremely cautious" when adding an ID requirement to the right to vote.
    James Moore of the nonpartisan New Voters Project, which has registered 14,000 people to vote, said the extra ID requirements could have harmed young voters who move a lot and have an outdated address on their driver's license that doesn't match the voter rolls.
    "Today, it appears we protected young people's right to vote in New Mexico," he said.
    Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko released a statement calling the decision "puzzling."
    "It would take our office no more than a few days to flag voters for identification," said Kunko, a Republican. "Does this mean if it's inconvenient to follow a law, we don't have to follow it?"
Election task force
    U.S. Attorney David Iglesias is forming a nonpartisan task force to investigate allegations of election fraud. The group will include representatives from the state Department of Public Safety, Secretary of State's Office, the FBI and others.
    "New Mexicans deserve to have a fair election," Iglesias said.
    Details are to be announced Thursday.

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