LATINO VOICES
09/27/2012 01:54 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2012

New Mexico Voter Purge Tests Voter Psyche, May Suppress Turnout

NEW YORK -- At New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran's Santa Fe office so many registered voter postcards arrive daily in the mail that four staff members work to process them all day, every day.

The postcards, mailed to voters last month with instructions to return them with a current address, are a standard part of a state election administrator's job. Duran insists that's why she initiated the project and will eventually ask counties to purge some of these voters from the rolls.

But critics allege that the postcard project's timing and Duran's political record are indications of an effort to suppress New Mexico's increasingly Latino, Democratic-leaning vote.

As David Thomson, a lawyer for the Democratic Party of New Mexico, told the Associated Press, "If you get it, you could think one of two things: Ok, here's another thing I have to do, when I am already taking time from work to go vote," he said. "Or it looks like I'm not eligible to vote."

Across the country, election administrators in Texas, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and other states are working to disqualify voters they say are ineligible or dead. Critics charge that officials cast too wide a net to compile the lists of potentially ineligible voters or that the efforts disproportionately affect minority voters. Most voter purges have faced stop orders from courts or the U.S. Department of Justice.

But in New Mexico, while the postcard project is technically legal, its possible effects are anything but clear. Voting rights advocates say Duran's tactics come from a 21st century voter suppression tool kit, one in which subtlety, tenacity and knowledge of voter psychology have replaced violence, literacy tests and threats.

"What we are doing is totally different than what Florida or any of those other states," said Ken Ortiz, the New Mexico Secretary of State's chief of staff. "We got Justice Department approval."

The National Voter Registration Act does call for states to verify the addresses of voters who may have moved or not voted in several elections. Duran's predecessor failed to do this work in 2007 and launched such a flawed effort in 2009 that the Justice Department barred the state from pulling voter credentials until the job was done correctly, Ortiz said.

In 2010, New Mexico briefly registered the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, meaning thousands of homeowners -- many of them harder-hit Latino families -- had to move.

On Aug. 1, Duran, a Latina and the first Republican to win the state election administrator's job in 80 years, sent postcards to 177,000 registered voters who postal records indicate have moved. So far, about 110,000 cards have come back marked undeliverable. The voter is gone and the postal service has no forwarding address, according to Ortiz. Another 6,745 cards arrived with new addresses or confirmation the voter never moved. Less than six weeks before the presidential election, just over 60,000 cards remain in the wind. Failure to return the postcard will not disqualify anyone from voting in this November's election; but after the November 2014 election, Duran will ask county officials to remove any voter who hasn't returned the postcard or has not voted in any of the previous three elections.

The fact that the postcards went out in August and may be sitting on voters' kitchen tables right now is significant.

Duran could have launched her search for relocated voters earlier, said Joshua Spaulding, a spokesman for the Fair Elections Legal Network.

Duran has been in office since January 2011 and started work with the Justice Department on the postcard project that year. She also launched a hunt for suspected non-citizens on the voter rolls. Duran told New Mexico legislators considering a Voter ID law that an investigation had flagged 117 people who weren't citizens, many of whom had voted, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported. Before 2012 began, Duran admitted just 19 of these people had cast ballots and some were citizens when they did.

The work Duran's office is doing now typically happens in odd years, Spaulding said. That gives election officials plenty of time to contact voters and voters plenty of time to respond, said Spaulding.

"These voter purge programs, they have to be very careful, and what we are seeing is they are not," he said. "There seems to be an attempt to remove a specific segment of voters. If they can't do that, then they will settle for introducing ... confusion."

For some voters, a card in the mail this close to the election may feel like a potentially nefarious plot or, for others, a helpful reminder to update their registration and to vote in November, said Ryan Enos, an Harvard University political psychologist who studies voter behavior, turnout and racial politics.

When it comes to voting, black and Latino voters are more likely than others to have personal experience with the nation's not-so-distant history of voter suppression, Enos said.

It's naive to think public policy -- even a postcard -- is neutral, he said.

"If you send out a postcard and say, 'Return this postcard with your current address,' some people are more likely to get that and read it and follow up," said Enos. "Those people are more likely to be white Republicans."

While the reasons for this phenomenon aren't exactly clear, it may be related to people's tradition of experiences with institutions and authority, Enos said. Public health workers have documented a similar phenomenon.

In the early 1990s, pediatricians began telling parents to put infants to sleep on their backs in order to reduce the risk of sudden infant death. Federal authorities started "Back to Sleep," a public health campaign. Then a new problem emerged.

"The infant mortality rate gap between blacks and whites got bigger," Enos said.

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