ALBUQUERQUE -- New Mexico has settled a lawsuit filed by advocacy groups last year over compliance with a law that lets people register to vote at various state agencies, including the Motor Vehicle Division when they get a driver's license.
The settlement will result in tens of thousands of people in the state being offered a chance to register to vote, said Nicole Kovite, who heads the public agency voter registration project for Washington, D.C.-based Project Vote, one of the groups that sued.
"Everyone has a voice and we have to use it or we're going to lose it," said New Mexico State University student Celia Valdez, one of the plaintiffs, who was frustrated by the difficulty of registering to vote every time she moved around Las Cruces and her hometown of Albuquerque.
If she was having problems, she said, she could only imagine how many other residents were being stymied at the polls.
The numbers from New Mexico's MVD were "very, very low" considering how many people go through the agency every year, said Kovite, whose nonpartisan voting rights organization tracks voter registrations by state agencies.
"Now, when people go to the MVD, they're going to be like, 'Hey, I'm changing my license and I can register to vote, too,'" said Valdez, a student of English, art and political science. " I hope people do get registered, and I believe they will, and vote. What more can we ask for?"
MVD offices submitted fewer than 3,000 voter registration applications in 2007
"We knew the state was not following the law," Kovite said.
Secretary of State Mary Herrera and Taxation and Revenue Secretary Dorothy Rodriguez, who signed the agreement last week, did not immediately return messages seeking comment Wednesday. The Taxation and Revenue Department oversees the MVD.
The settlement requires MVD staffers to be designated as National Voter Registration Act coordinators, who will help ensure compliance with the law through education and training and by making sure offices have equipment needed for voter registrations.
The MVD must update computer systems and websites and monitor compliance. The agreement also requires offices to post signs telling members of the public they can register to vote at that office.
The agreement settles only the part of the lawsuit against the MVD and the Taxation and Revenue Department.
Still to be settled are allegations the New Mexico Human Services Department did not follow the law's requirement to distribute voter registration cards along with applications for public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid. That requirement is in an effort to reach low-income citizens who are less likely to own vehicles.
A coalition of advocacy groups sued New Mexico and Indiana in July 2009 after a successful settlement with Missouri over the voter registration law. The coalition said the problems were widespread across the nation and that it was working with other states to avoid litigation.
The coalition also included the nonprofit group Demos and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Sun-News reporter Ashley Meeks contributed to this article.