Chooser Illusion
City Councilor Pushes for Ranked-Choice Voting in '10

By Dave Maass
Published September 8th 2009 in Santa Fe Reporter
As speculation heats up regarding who will run for Santa Fe mayor and City Council in 2010, municipal voters may well wonder if they will get what they voted for the last time around.

In March 2008, Santa Fe voters passed two election-related amendments to the city charter. One mandates that the Santa Fe City Council put in place public campaign financing, and the other requires that the city implement ranked-choice voting as soon as municipally possible.

So far, the council has made very little progress on public campaign financing: It failed to set money aside to pay for it and the ordinance has bounced around committees so long it is likely no longer legally possible to have public financing for the March 10, 2010 election. The council will have a chance to vote on a proposed ordinance on Oct. 14, but the proposal states the process would have had to have begun in September.

Ranked-choice voting hasn�t fared much better. The system, also known as instant-run-off voting, allows voters to identity their first-, second-, third-choice (and so forth) candidates. If a candidate doesn�t win a majority in a race, the least-voted-for candidate is removed from consideration and his or her supporters� second choice votes are calculated. This process repeats until one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

Although the charter amendment specifies that March 2010 should be the goal for a ranked-choice election, technological shortcomings are proving the greatest hurdle. While the voting machines available to the city can accept information from ranked-choice ballots, the machines can�t tally the results without major and costly software, if not hardware, upgrades.

�I would say that, utilizing [the current election machine] certified by the secretary of state, it�s not possible to do it by 2010,� City Clerk Yolanda Vigil tells SFR. �But we are looking at alternatives.�

Waiting until 2012 would mean that the first ranked-choice mayoral election would not occur until six years after voters approved the mandate.

At least one city councilor believes ranked-choice voting is still plausible for March. Rosemary Romero, who was elected to represent District 2 in 2008, sent a memo to Vigil in mid-August requesting analysis of three possible ways to implement the change:

1. Use the county�s voting machines, but hand sort the ballots in any race in which a runoff is required, and then feed the ballots back into the machines.

2. Use the county�s voting machines, but hand sort the ballots and hand tally the results in case of a runoff.

3. Use the county�s voting machines, but hire another machine provider to handle the tallying.

�We want to do a test between now and December,� Romero says. �I don�t want to promise we�re going to have it in March until we�ve tested it out. The voters said it was an important thing, and I want to see that we do what the people asked for.�

The proposed solutions each come with flaws. Vigil says the first two cases may require a legal opinion to determine whether the measures meet the charter requirements.

The third option would require money in a tight-budget year. City Attorney Frank Katz currently is researching whether the city is allowed to hire an outside election company that has not been certified by the New Mexico secretary of state to handle vote tallying. Romero says all three options would necessitate extending the clerk�s canvassing deadline from three days to at least a week.

The push for ranked-choice voting is largely the effort of Rick Lass, director of the elections-reform organization Voting Matters. In 2008, Lass entered the state Public Regulation Commission race as a Green Party candidate after Jerome Block Jr. won the six-way Democratic primary race with less than 25 percent of the vote. Lass lost the general election in November and has since returned to pizza delivery in addition to his advocacy.

Lass points out that 40 percent of the city�s non-partisan municipal races between 1994 and 2006 were decided by a minority of voters. Lass estimates it would take 24 hours for six teams, each comprised of three poll workers, to hand count an instant-runoff election. He also claims the city could rent a capable ballot-counting machine for approximately $20,000.

Councilor Miguel Chavez, who thinks ranked-choice voting should be postponed and implemented simultaneously with public campaign financing, concedes that $20,000 sounds like a reasonable price tag.

�I think the focus should be for everything to be in place by 2012,� Chavez says. �We haven�t done the work we should�ve done in the last two years. We�re rushing at the last minute, and I�m not sure that�s the way to do it. Doing it right later is better than doing it half-baked now.�

Of course, ranked-choice voting will be unnecessary if no race draws three or more candidates, as was the case during the 2008 municipal elections. For 2010, only two office holders�Mayor David Coss and Councilor Chris Calvert�have drawn challengers thus far. Even though these are currently two-person races, those challengers tells SFR voters should get the ranked-choice ballots they voted for.

�On principle, if it�s feasible, then I think [ranked-choice voting] is preferable,� former journalist Russell Simon, who is running against Calvert in District 2, tells SFR. �People should have faith in the political process, and it�s demoralizing to think that your elected official did not earn a majority of the vote.�

Former City Manager Asenath Kepler, who is challenging Coss, says she similarly believes in majority rule.

�I�m going for the big monty, all the way,� Kepler says. �I�m not going for 30 percent. I want a clear mandate from the people that that�s what they want. We want 50 percent of the vote.�

Coss won in 2006 with 51 percent of the vote. Both Coss and Calvert tell SFR they would welcome ranked-choice voting if Vigil deems it possible. Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman Matt Ortiz says Romero�s effort may be too little too late.

�It would�ve been nice for [Romero�s] memo to come out last year so we could have some kind of discussion in a timely way,� Ortiz, who ran unopposed for his District 4 seat in 2008, says.

Lass says ranked-choice voting really isn�t as complicated as some would make it out to be. Recently, he completed a mock ranked-choice election with civic leaders in Las Vegas, NM, using cookies from Trader Joe�s in place of candidates to demonstrate the principle.

According to Lass, �Almond Crunch�s� victory against the more commonly popular chocolate-chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies does not represent a flaw in the ranked-choice system.

�Well, the chocolate-chip cookies were kinda stale and the oatmeal-raisin didn�t have many raisins in it,� Lass says.