My view: City to discuss reforms on Wednesday

By Jim Harrington
Published September 22nd 2007 in Santa Fe New Mexican
FEATURED QUOTE: "[Instant runoff voting] is the cheapest and most efficient way to ensure that elected officials are supported by a majority of the voters..."

The Santa Fe City Council will have the opportunity at its meeting of Sept. 26, to initiate major improvements in city government and city elections. The Charter Review Commission appointed by the council has proposed several such improvements in the form of amendments to the city charter, and the council will decide at that meeting whether to place the proposed amendments on the March ballot for approval by the voters.

The most important of the Commission’s proposals are:


* public financing of political campaigns;
* facilitation of direct democracy through the popular measures known as initiative, referendum and recall;
* use of ranked-choice voting in city elections, and
* a requirement that the municipal judge be an attorney.

Public campaign financing would reduce or eliminate the influence of private campaign contributions on the decisions of public officials, would relieve them of the necessity to divert their time and energy to fundraising, and would permit the imposition of reasonable limits on campaign expenditures. Acceptance of public financing would be voluntary for the candidates, but experience in the many jurisdictions where it is now offered has shown that, in a properly designed system, all or almost all candidates will eventually participate.

The long-run annualized cost of public financing in Santa Fe has been estimated to be between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, the equivalent of only a $7 to $12 increase in the annual property taxes on a $500,000 home.

Initiatives, referenda and recall of elected officials are permitted under the present law, but the number of signatures needed to place them on the ballot is prohibitively large. The proposed charter amendment would reduce this number to a level that would be attainable but still high enough to prevent abuse.

An initiative or referendum, for example, would need about 3,000 signatures to get on the ballot, compared with the present unrealistic requirement of 9,000 signatures, which is 60 percent of the number of votes normally cast in city elections.

Ranked-choice voting, also called “instant runoff,” allows a voter to rank the candidates for each office in the order of his or her preference. The votes are then counted in a series of rounds in which the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated in each round and the ballots cast for that candidate are then redistributed to the remaining candidates who are ranked next on those ballots, until one candidate finally receives a majority of the votes.

Ranked-choice voting normally produces the same outcome as a runoff election, but without the expense and delay of a second election. This voting method, which is being used in an increasing number of cities, is the cheapest and most efficient way to ensure that elected officials are supported by a majority of the voters, which does not happen under our current plurality system, where many officials have actually been elected over the opposition of the majority.

Requiring the municipal judge to be a lawyer would ensure a permanent improvement in the quality of justice administered in our municipal court. Although there have been excellent non-lawyer judges, and although judges with law degrees are by no means immune from mistakes, the statistical evidence demonstrates that serious errors and miscarriages of justice, including wrongful incarceration, are far more likely when the judge is not a lawyer.

The city owes its citizens the best chance it can give them of avoiding this kind of injustice.

The City Council must now decide whether to give the voters an opportunity to adopt these important reforms.

You can express your view by calling or e-mailing your councilor.

Jim Harrington is a Santa Fe attorney and is chairman of the eight-member Charter Review Commission appointed by the mayor and City Council in 2005.