Las Cruces city officials are weighing whether to enact ranked-choice voting in the state’s second-largest city — a move that would follow Santa Fe’s inaugural implementation of the ranking format in March and boost the number of cities in New Mexico that have adopted the electoral reform to two.
It’s possible others could follow under the state’s new Local Election Act, which allows home-rule cities with runoff provisions to establish a ranked-choice or "instant" runoff format for municipal elections.
A second New Mexico city to make the switch and enlist in the ranked-choice movement in a year’s time would mark a sharp — and welcome — turnaround for advocates of the format, who as recently as late last year were fighting tooth and nail in Santa Fe courtrooms to force the city of Santa Fe to use the voter-approved ranking mechanism in the March mayoral and city council elections.
An ordinance that would establish a ranked-choice format for Las Cruces city elections beginning November 2019, when voters there will elect a mayor and fill three of six City Council seats, will be considered by councilors early next month.
Ranked-choice elections, which allows voters to rank candidates in their order of preference and can incentivize collegial campaigns, would cost the city half what a more traditional “top-two” runoff would, according to a Las Cruces staff summary of the proposal.
“It’s kind of interesting, when you stop and think about it, how they do it,” said Mayor Ken Miyagishima, who added he’s open to the proposed shift. “Like anything else, when it comes to change, it’s a little different. But we see change all around us. And if other communities have done it, and they seem to be OK with it, that’s really the best referral that you can have.”
Currently, Las Cruces election code stipulates that a runoff between the top two candidates will occur if no candidate earns at least 40 percent of the vote.
The ranked-choice proposal is a response to the new state law that seeks to simplify local elections — and establishes how cities that use runoffs to elect officeholders will conduct them.
The Local Election Act, signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez this year, allows cities to opt in to a consolidated election schedule with their respective counties and stipulates all runoffs shall be “conducted … as a top-two runoff election or as a ranked-choice runoff election,” for which the secretary of state will issue rules.
The state’s election software includes a new ranked-choice module, which the city of Santa Fe used in March when voters elected Mayor Alan Webber, Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler and Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth in New Mexico’s first contests to put ranked-choice to use.
City officials generally described the election as a smooth one as far as voter comprehension of the new system, though election night did see lengthy delays, which the city clerk attributed to laws that govern how ballot cards are handled, not specifically ranked-choice mechanisms.
Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling, whose county office would oversee consolidated city elections if Las Cruces opts into the state law, has advocated the benefits of a ranked-choice shift, Miyagishima and other Las Cruces city officials said.
City Councilor Gabe Vasquez recalled a recent study session led by Krahling in which the clerk walked through findings from Santa Fe’s first ranked-choice balloting.
“Overall, the city council was fairly supportive of it,” Vasquez said. “I would say I’m cautiously optimistic. I think, as elected officials, it’s really our duty to represent all of our constituents and to increase participation in democracy. If ranked-choice helps us do that, then I do support it.”
“We have to trust in those election officials who feel it’s a fair system, one that would increase voter turnout,” Miyagishima said. “How can you not support something like that?”
Maria Perez, the executive director of the Santa Fe-based FairVote New Mexico, a chapter of a national ranked-choice advocacy nonprofit, said she has hired a part-time organizer for Southern New Mexico and will soon hire one for Central New Mexico.
The idea now is to identify which of New Mexico’s 11 home-rule municipalities might be amenable to the ranked-choice changeover, Perez said.
“I’m talking to people all over the state to see if there’s a level of interest and what kind of capacity there is on the ground for people to advocate for this in their own communities,” she said. “I think there might be a shift now that it is enshrined in state law and we have an example in Santa Fe that worked very well.”
“The Local Election Act definitely opens a lot of doors for us,” she added.