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Voter ID bill sparks heated debate in House panel

Barry Massey

State and county elections officials disagreed Tuesday over whether New Mexico should require voters to show identification at the polls.

Secretary of State Dianna Duran testified before a House committee in support of voter identification legislation by Rep. Dianne Hamilton, a Silver City Republican.

"We need to have voter ID implemented before going into 2012 elections in order to assure that every person who appears at that polling place is the person they say they are," said Duran, a Republican elected last year.

But county clerks, who administer elections in New Mexico's 33 counties, opposed Hamilton's proposal. They objected that it would only apply to people who cast ballots at polling places but not to mail-in absentee voting, which they say has a greater risk of potential abuse.

Denise Lamb, the chief deputy clerk in Santa Fe County and a former state elections director, said poll workers never see the individuals who cast absentee ballots.

"No one knows if someone is assisting them with that ballot. No one knows if someone is coercing them or bribing them unlike at the polling places. We cannot create two classes of voters," Lamb said.

The legislation drew a large crowd to a hearing of the House Voters and Elections Committee, forcing it to move to a larger room in the Capitol. The panel postponed a vote on the measure until Thursday.

Supporters said a voter identification requirement will provide more integrity in state elections and help prevent voter fraud.

"If it's important enough that I present an ID to rent a movie, it should be important enough to present an ID to vote," said Robert Mitzel of Roswell, who spoke on behalf of the Chaves County Tea Party Patriots.

Lamb disagreed, saying, "A privilege granted by a business is different than a constitutional right."

She and other opponents said the identification requirement could infringe on a citizen's right to vote and may discourage people from participating in elections, particularly minorities or the elderly who may no longer have a driver's license. They also said voter fraud is extremely rare.

"This bill, quite frankly, is a proposal to solve no problem that exists," said Roy Streit of Placitas.

Hamilton's bill would require New Mexico voters to show a government identification card with a photograph, such as a driver's license. Native Americans could use a tribe-issued document as identification.

Eight states require voters to show photo identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and 19 states accept non-photo identification to meet their voter identification requirements.

Although the county clerks opposed Hamilton's bill, they are divided on whether voter identification should be required.

Douglas Shaw, chief deputy clerk in Chaves County, said he backs a voter identification requirement for all voting _ at polls and absentee balloting. He said Hamilton's proposal was too narrow.

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The voter ID bill is HB308.

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Online:

Legislature: http://www.nmlegis.gov

The Associated Press