City voters to weigh instant runoffs
Charter amendment on March ballot calls for ranking candidates in municipal elections

By Julie Ann Grimm
Published December 24th 2007 in Santa Fe New Mexican
It's usually good news for a Santa Fe municipal election candidate when more than two people run for the same office. That's because the winner of such a race can slip in with the support of only a minority of voters.

A proposed amendment to the city charter would get rid of plurality winners by employing ranked-choice voting in city elections beginning in 2010 or as soon as software for tabulation machines makes the practice possible.

City voters will weigh the election change as one of seven charter amendments on ballot in the March 4 municipal election.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff or single-transferable voting, ensures the winning candidate has support from a majority of voters.

It works like this: When voters cast ballots, they rank all candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate has more than 50 percent of the top-choice votes, the ballots for the person with the least votes are "relocated," which means those ballots are recounted, only this time they are tallied for the voters' second choice. The process is repeated until a candidate has a majority of votes.

By law, the city charter must be reviewed every 10 years. This fall, the City Council approved recommendations from a committee that took up that task for the first time since the 1997 charter adoption. The group, headed by attorney Jim Harrington, wrote in its report that "it is desirable to avoid situations in which officials are elected to office by a minority of the electorate."

Santa Fe Green Party member Rick Lass said the ranked-choice charter amendment is the proposed amendment that requires the most education for voters since many don't understand how it works or what it is and are reluctant to change the current system.

But Lass noted the concept is growing in popularity all over the nation. Fairvote, a national election-reform advocacy group, reports voters in 14 cities or counties in the last five years changed election laws to incorporate instant-runoff voting. San Francisco, Minneapolis and several cities in North Carolina use it, along with other jurisdictions.

"The movement is strong for this," Lass said. "People are seeing that elections are not working, and they are looking at ways to fix it."

Ranked choice ensures local elected officials have the support of a majority of voters and therefore feel compelled to consider their viewpoints, Lass said, noting a candidate with a minority of votes can be problematic because it means more people voted against rather than for that candidate. Over the past seven elections, 15 of 35 elected officials have received less than a majority of votes cast, he said.

Lass, who has run for state office several times and once earned 33 percent of votes against state Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, said the amendment is important to restore the spirit of democracy. Instead of treating some candidates as so-called "spoilers," ranked-choice voting allows people with new ideas to enter the fray without fear of taking votes from the better of the leading candidates.

One of the challenges of implementing ranked-choice voting rests in the technology used for local elections. The city does not own its own voting machines or tabulation equipment; instead, the city clerk borrows voting machines from Santa Fe County.

The county's current machines are not programmed to accommodate ranked-choice ballots, so the city wouldn't be able to start using the ballot method unless software that allows for ranked choice using the current machines is available or new machines are purchased.

A clause in the charter amendment spells that out, noting that if the measure is approved, the voting method would go into effect in March 2010 or as soon thereafter as the equipment and or software is "available at a reasonable price."

County Elections Bureau Director Denise Lamb said an official from Election Systems & Software — the Omaha, Neb., company that has state approval to provide county equipment — told her the company has no intent to upgrade software to make ranked-choice voting an option on the county's machines.

Lamb said she's concerned about the length of ballots and the time required for some hand counting under such a system, but noted the major impediment now is voting equipment.

"I don't see us putting software in and taking it out just for the city elections," she said. "I think that is risky. I don't think you want to start messing around with your software, installing it and de-installing it."

The idea of using ranked-choice voting in Santa Fe was floated at the inception of the charter, said Karen Walker, who chaired the citizen group that wrote the document. Walker said the group decided not to add the new voting method because they feared it would spark confusion and endanger the passage of the charter as a whole. Now, however, Walker supports the ballot measure.

Had the city had such a system in place for this election, life might be different for the real-estate agent who came in third in the contest for mayor last year. Coss eked out a majority of votes at 50.3 percent, while state Transportation Commissioner and developer David Schutz gleaned 35.1 percent of votes, Walker 13.6 percent and two other candidates a combined 1 percent.

Walker wouldn't put the issue in the context of her campaign, however. "It could have made a difference, but I don't want to speculate about the past," she said.