Santa Fe voters have been waiting for City Hall to implement ranked-choice voting for more than seven years.
They will have to wait a while longer.
A divided City Council decided Wednesday to delay the voting system rather than try to roll it out in the March 2018 municipal election. The motion to delay cited the “known schedule delays from the vendor” that is developing the election software.
The city clerk also expressed concerns Wednesday about whether the system would be operable by election day.
In 2008, city voters approved ranked-choice voting, also known as an instant runoff, to allow voters to rank candidates in municipal elections so that in races with a field of candidates, in which none gets more than half the votes cast, a single winner can be determined using voters’ alternate choices. Currently, a city councilor or mayor can win an election with less than a majority vote. Javier Gonzales, for instance, received 43 percent of votes in a three-way mayor’s race in 2014.
The new system was expected to go into effect in March 2010 but has faced technical delays.
A voting machine vendor has developed software for ranked-choice voting that is compatible with the city’s voting machines, but City Councilor Mike Harris said the vendor, Dominion Voting — formerly known as Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. — has failed to demonstrate that it can meet its obligations.
“It looks to me like they’ve missed every deadline,” he said.
Harris said Dominion initially said the software would cost $350,000 but then dropped the price to $40,000, a move he considered a “red flag.”
“There’s really too much at stake at all levels,” Harris said.
Harris and Councilors Signe Lindell, Chris Rivera and Ron Trujillo voted to delay ranked-choice voting, while Mayor Javier Gonzales and Councilors Joseph Maestas and Renee Villarreal wanted to move forward. Councilors Carmichael Dominguez and Peter Ives were absent from the meeting.
City Clerk Yolanda Vigil asked the governing body for direction but indicated that moving to a new voting system would present a host of challenges, from educating voters to not knowing whether the software, which has not yet been independently tested by the federal Election Assistance Commission, would be certified by the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office.
“This is totally new, totally different,” she said. “Nothing like this has been done in New Mexico.”
According to ballot language approved by voters in 2008, the new system would allow voters “to rank in order of their preference the candidates for each office appearing on the ballot. If, after counting all voters’ first choice listed on their ballots for an office, no candidate receives a majority of votes cast, the candidate with the fewest votes shall be eliminated.”
The city would then tally each ballot again, “counting the vote from each ballot for the highest ranked candidate who has not been eliminated. If still no candidate for that office receives a majority, the process shall be repeated until a candidate receives a majority of votes for that office.”
The ballot question called for the voting system to go into effect during the March 2010 municipal election or soon after “equipment and software for tabulating the votes and allowing correction of incorrectly marked, in-person ballots are available at a reasonable price.”
Vigil said Dominion projected that its software update would be presented for independent testing by Aug. 25 and would seek certification from the Secretary of State’s Office on Sept. 30 or Oct. 1.
The city clerk plans to issue packets Sept. 1, a date set by ordinance, to candidates running for office in the March 2018 election. Vigil said she didn’t know whether it would be “critical” for a candidate to know if the city would, in fact, do ranked-choice voting in March or whether it would affect their decision to run as a privately or publicly financed candidate.
“There’s just a number of questions that I’m not sure what the answer is,” she said.
Vigil said she would need to hire at least a dozen workers, some on a part-time basis, to help with next year’s election and her regular office duties if the governing body decided to move forward with ranked-choice voting in 2018.
Lindell said the governing body was being asked to bet on software under “some very tight deadlines” with the idea that everything would go smoothly.
“Candidates are being asked to go on the good faith that this is all going to happen because I think some candidates in their races would have different strategies based upon if we had ranked-choice voting,” she said.
“Campaigns are hard,” Lindell added, “and I think to ask people to go on good faith of running a campaign in one direction for a month without really knowing, and then having to upend their strategy possibly at the end of the month, I think that that’s unfair to a candidate to do that.”
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.