A runoff after ranked choice? Mayor proposes ordinance

Mayor Javier Gonzales announces Monday during a council meeting at city hall that the city will move forward with ranked-choice voting but will appeal the case to the New Mexico Supreme Court. Under a proposal to be introduced by Gonzales published online Friday, if no one emerges from a ranked-choice election with a majority of the votes cast, the top two vote-getters would proceed to a runoff election six weeks later. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

There’s a chance Santa Fe might need two elections to pick its next mayor.

If no one emerges from a ranked-choice election with a majority of the votes cast, the top two vote-getters would proceed to a runoff election six weeks later, under a proposed ordinance to be introduced by Mayor Javier Gonzales.

The proposal, published online Friday, is intended to ensure the result of a ranked-choice election comports with the city charter, which says a winning candidate will have received “a majority of the votes for that office.”

Proponents of ranked-choice elections say the format, which the city is preparing to use in March, results in a winner who better reflects the will of the voters. But a winner in a ranked-choice voting system still might not receive a majority of the votes cast.

A ranked-choice election allows voters to rank the candidates for an office in order of preference. If no candidate wins outright by taking more than 50 percent of the vote, the ranking system comes into play. The last-place candidate is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate first would see their runner-up votes redistributed to remaining candidates.

But if enough voters only rank one or two candidates, there might not be enough runner-up votes to push any contender above 50 percent.

This was the case in Minneapolis in 2013 when Betsy Hodges won a 33-round ranked-choice mayoral election with 49 percent of the vote. The second-place finisher had 31 percent.

Under the newly proposed Santa Fe ordinance, if no candidate in a ranked-choice election has received a majority of the votes cast after all ballots have been tallied, a runoff election shall be held between the two candidates with the most votes. The head-to-head runoff would occur six weeks after the first election.

In the meantime, the sitting officeholder would continue to serve until a successor was elected and sworn in.

“So maybe I won’t go to the Bahamas,” Gonzales joked Friday.

But a leading advocate of ranked-choice voting said the proposed “runoff after a runoff” ordinance would misinterpret the majority stipulation in the city charter.

A “majority” refers to the majority of votes that are still available through the redistribution system of ranked-choice voting, said Rob Richie, director of FairVote, a nonpartisan advocacy group. He said that’s more in line with how other U.S. cities interpret ranked-choice, which advocates call an instant runoff.

“It’s a majority of people who have views about those remaining candidates,” Richie said. “If I’ve ranked one of the candidates in the final round, my ballot will count in the final round. If I’ve chosen to rank neither, I’ve essentially indicated I’m indifferent about the outcome.”

This is similar, Richie said, to how voters who might participate in the first round of a traditional runoff might feel indifferent about the two candidates who emerge to face each other head to head.

Voters are perhaps more familiar with the traditional runoff format the new city proposal sketches out.

Tim Keller and Dan Lewis finished first and second respectively in a field of eight Albuquerque mayoral candidates in October. But Keller’s 39 percent total fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright.

So the two proceeded to a head-to-head runoff. Keller trounced Lewis with 62 percent of the vote to become mayor.

In a charter amendment approved in 2008, Santa Fe voters approved a shift to ranked-choice voting.

State District Judge David Thomson ordered the city to comply with its charter and implement ranked-choice voting for the 2018 elections last week. The City Council subsequently decided to proceed with implementing the ranked-choice format while at the same time appealing Thomson’s order to the state Supreme Court. City councilors are seeking a ruling on whether a ranked-choice system is allowed under the state constitution.

Notice of Gonzales’ proposed ordinance for how to handle a ranked-choice election that doesn’t produce a majority winner is scheduled to be published Wednesday. A public hearing before the City Council would follow Jan. 10.

The City Council is scheduled to hear an ordinance laying out a ranked-choice voting process Dec. 20. The draft of that ordinance establishes the rules of such an election and stipulates voters may rank in order of preference as many candidates as they like.

Gonzales, who is not seeking re-election, said the city’s ranked-choice voter education campaign would include efforts to encourage voters to rank all of the candidates.

With only partially ranked ballots, Gonzales said, there is the risk “our objective” of electing a mayor with majority support would not be met.

“We need everyone to fill out the ballots,” he said.

Five candidates are running for mayor. In addition, two elections for City Council seats have three candidates each. Election Day is March 6.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.

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