Santa Fe, NM Faces RCV Implementation Questions After Ruling

[Image via nextdoor]

The City of Santa Fe, NM is facing a series of questions about how to implement ranked-choice voting (RCV) after a recent court ruling ordering that it be used in the City beginning with next March’s mayoral election. Santa Fe has had a city charter amendment establishing RCV since 2008, but technology to conduct the election had not been certified for use in the state until recently – and proponents went to court to ensure that it would be in place for next year’s election.

Now that RCV will be used, the City will have to confront a series of questions, as the Santa Fe New Mexican finds:

The vote-tabulation machines ready for the city to use in March have the state-certified capability to perform a ranked-choice election, but several “configurables” — elements of the ranked-choice process that could very well affect the race — remain to be decided by local policymakers, said Kari Fresquez, the state elections director.

Some are subtle, like how to handle ties. Most significant, however, and still undetermined, is how many candidates a voter may rank in Santa Fe, Fresquez said. Some ranked-choice U.S. cities, such as San Francisco, allow voters to rank only up to three candidates.

The newly certified ranked-choice module on New Mexico voting machines allows voters to rank up to 10 options. Santa Fe ought to use this feature and permit voters to rank all of the candidates, [FairVote’s Rob] Richie said.

FairVote New Mexico has proposed, for timeliness’ sake, that the city simply adopt a ranked-choice election ordinance used by the city of Oakland, with minor tweaks that remove California-specific language.

“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Maria Perez, the state’s FairVote director and one of the five local petitioners who successfully lobbied a court to order the city to use ranked-choice in 2018.

The city’s charter language about ranked-choice states the ranking mechanism, which eliminates last-place candidates and transfers votes to remaining contenders, will continue until a winner reaches a majority — 50 percent of the vote plus one.

Richie acknowledged the only way to truly ensure a majority is to force voters to rank every candidate. Otherwise, voters are free to rank only one or two, and their votes may become “exhausted,” or inactive, if their choice is eliminated as the rounds of elimination and vote transfers proceed.

“But we’ve been uneasy about going there,” Richie said, referring to mandatory rankings. “If a jurisdiction wanted to do that, sure, but I think you might run into voters who are unhappy with being forced to rank everybody.”

How to ensure the city electorate fully understands the new system, a first in the state, will be an ongoing concern.

Election officials, including Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, have said there is time to sufficiently inform Santa Feans about the new ballots they’ll use.

After the 2011 ranked-choice mayoral election in Portland, Maine, the Portland Press Herald lauded the new system, which voters had approved only the year before.

“Few voters reported any problems figuring out” the new ballots despite a field of 15, the daily Press Herald wrote in a post-election editorial, and turnout far exceeded the city clerk’s expectation.

Portland’s 2015 ranked-choice mayor’s race drew a lower turnout, though that was perhaps attributable to a novelty having worn off: The 2011 election was the first time Portland voters had elected their mayor in almost 90 years. For years, the City Council had picked one of its own members to serve a one-year term.

Critics of the late shift to ranked-choice voting in Santa Fe do warn about the potential for depressed turnout. Councilor Ron Trujillo, another candidate for mayor, said last week that voter education and outreach needed to be thorough to prevent such a possibility.

But this fall, a couple of Midwestern ranked-choice elections saw turnout improve. In St. Paul, Minn., for instance, the contest last month over an open mayor’s seat drew 30 percent turnout, double that of the city’s 2013 election, according to MinnPost, an online nonprofit news service. In neighboring Minneapolis, according to the Star Tribune, turnout was 43 percent, a 10 percent increase from four years prior.

It will be interesting to see how Santa Fe handles this fast transition to RCV; there is a lot of work to be done between now and March – both in preparing materials and voters for the change. I would expect lots of back and forth in New Mexico’s capital city as the March election approaches. Stay tuned!

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