Bill To Ban Guns At Polling Places In New Mexico Advances With Concerns About Intimidation

Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe speaks in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, about a budget proposal in advance of a 30-day legislative session. The Democratic-led legislature convenes Jan. 16 amid a multibillion-dollar budget surplus to address concerns about education, crime, affordable housing and childhood well-being in an election years for House and Senate lawmakers. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe speaks in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, about a budget proposal in advance of a 30-day legislative session. The Democratic-led legislature convenes Jan. 16 amid a multibillion-dollar budget surplus to address concerns about education, crime, affordable housing and childhood well-being in an election years for House and Senate lawmakers. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A Democratic-backed bill to ban firearms at polling places and near ballot drop boxes won the endorsement of New Mexico's state Senate in response to concerns about intimidation and fears among poll workers in the runup to the 2024 election.

The bill now moves to the state House for consideration after winning Senate approval on a 26-16 vote, with all Republicans and one Democrat voting in opposition. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signaled her support in putting the bill on a limited agenda for a 30-day legislative session.

A dozen states including Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Georgia prohibit guns at voting locations, as legislators in several other states grapple with concerns about the intersection of voting and guns in a polarized political climate. As votes were tallied in the 2020 presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, armed protesters carrying guns gathering nightly outside offices where workers were counting the votes in states including Arizona, Nevada and Michigan to decide who won the White House.

“Given where we are as a country with elections, having guns (kept) out of polling places in my opinion — and I respect that there's a difference of opinion on this — but I think it makes a lot of sense," said Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, cosponsor of the bill to ban concealed and open carry of guns within 100 feet (30 meters) of the entrance of a polling place.

Republican senators in the legislative minority highlighted their opposition, proposing unsuccessful amendments to exempt rural counties or concealed gun permit holders from the gun ban at polling places. Colorado in 2022 banned the open carry of firearms — but not concealed weapons — at polls.

State Sen. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, a conservative political stronghold with a strong culture of gun ownership, said the bill would “disproportionately disenfranchise” Republican gun owners who are “genuinely afraid of going into gun-free zones."

Guns already are prohibited at New Mexico schools that often serve as Election Day voting sites, along with extensive Native American tribal lands. The bill would extend similar restrictions to a variety of other polling locations on Election Day and during a weekslong period of in-person early voting, from storefront voting centers to houses of worship. Guns would be banned within 50 feet (15 meters) of drop boxes for absentee balloting during voting periods.

The proposed gun restrictions would be punishable as a petty misdemeanor by up to six months in a county jail, a $500 fine or both.

A similar bill won Senate approval in last year but stalled without a House floor vote. The new version provides exceptions and some leeway for people to leave guns in a personal vehicle while voting, and outside of shopping mall voting centers where people may be carrying a gun incidentally as they run other errands.

A 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding gun rights in the so-called Bruen decision has upended firearms restrictions across the country as activists wage court battles over everything from bans on AR-15-style rifles to restrictions in so-called “sensitive” locations.

"Polling places are one of the lanes within the Bruen decision, where Justice Clarence Thomas clearly said there is a historical precedent for a state stepping in to regulate firearms,” Wirth said.

On the Senate floor, Wirth said the bill responds to political constituents working at polling places in 2022 who felt intimidated by people who brought in guns —- though without violations of criminal statutes against intimidation at polling places.