Ranked-choice system gets mixed reception among early voters

Poll worker Michael J. Browne, left, helps voter Robert Darmitzel cast his early voting ballot Wednesday at City Hall. For the first time, Santa Fe voters may cast ballots using a ranked-choice system for the mayoral candidates. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

A trickle of chipper early bird voters streamed through the Genoveva Chavez Community Center in crisp, springlike weather Tuesday morning to cast ballots for mayor and City Council seats — an ordinary tableau amid an extraordinary election, Santa Fe’s first to use a ranked-choice format.

Exit poll interviews with 20 of the several dozen residents who cast ballots in the first hours after polls opened for early voting revealed an array of sentiment, most saying they were either fans of the new system or indifferent to it, and only a handful offering a negative review.

And all but a couple were emphatic: They knew what they wanted to do with the five-candidate, 25-bubble mayoral ballot.

Why else vote early?

Lynn Hopkins, a tech-world retiree, said she bubbled in two candidates. “Frankly, there’s one I want to win, and a second option that would be OK. And I don’t care for the other three.”

“I think it forces you to pay more attention to the candidates,” Hopkins added. “You have to really think about, well, who would my second choice be? And so you listen to the candidates more closely. And you do your research. I think that’s a good thing.”

Gene Chorostecki, a retired physician, voted for four. “There’s one fellow I wouldn’t vote for at all, and so that’s that,” Chorostecki said.

“I was happy with the single vote,” he added, referring to the city’s old plurality system. “But maybe this will be better. We’ll see.”

After 10 a.m., a pair of women stomped out of the voting center.

“It’s dumb,” said one, who did not give her name. “It’s so dumb. You vote for your one. That’s it.”

“I think it’s ridiculous. … What is this multiple-choice stuff?” said a woman in a black baseball cap who gave her name as Ana, and who added a second descriptor more colorful than “ridiculous.” “It’s convoluted. It’s just going to confuse people. That’s all it’s going to do.

“I said, ‘I only want to rank my one,’ and [the poll workers] said, ‘Well, if they don’t get 51 percent —’ ” Ana threw up her hands.

“It’s silly to have so many choices,” she added. “Classic Coke, regular Coke, Diet Coke — who needs this many choices?”

Michael Baldwin, a resident who came not to cast a vote but to sort out an absentee ballot question, said he was under the impression the new election format was a traditional runoff.

“It’s kind of confusing to me,” Baldwin said. “I thought it would eventually get down to two people, and they would fight it out.”

The ranked-choice system is sometimes called an “instant runoff” by supporters, but the election is decided whenever one of the candidates crosses the 50-percent-plus-one threshold of the ballots that remain, which could happen before the field is cut down to two final candidates.

Some voters were able to breeze through all that. Partners Ron Ginsburg and Shirley Cruse said they had attended a city-hosted voter education event at the Southside Branch Library and were ready to cook.

“Easy,” Ginsburg said brightly as he left the voting center. “Simple.”

“Yeah, all five,” said Cruse, asked how many candidates she ranked. “Why not?”

Debbie Goldberg, a retired U.S. history teacher, raved about the new system.

“There’s no runoff, no anything,” said Goldberg, who ranked all five mayoral candidates. “It’s much better. You have a chance of getting someone in there you actually like.”

But she added she feared too many people would rank only one candidate. “They’re not doing it correctly,” she said. “You want your vote to keep on going through.”

Some, like former Santa Fe County Clerk Angie Vigil, will inevitably resist that idea.

“When you have someone you like for council, when you have someone you like for mayor, you vote for them, you know?” Vigil said. “I don’t like voting for everyone else.”

Retiree Rex Givens said the only surprise was the notification message he received after submitting his ballot.

“I didn’t know the machine was going to light up if I didn’t rank all five,” Givens said. “But it’s a smart way to do it. I didn’t like the way someone could win with 40 percent. You should get 51 percent if you want to be mayor.”

When Janet Harris, a clinical social worker, was asked whether she liked the new system, she thought for 15 seconds.

Then she shrugged. “Eh,” Harris said. “It remains to be seen if it’s going to make a difference.”

Harris ranked three candidates for mayor, and she felt “very strongly” about the top two. “I’d be happy with either one of them,” she said.

Judy Ruffatto said the new way of voting almost slipped her mind.

“We read up and talked about it a lot,” she said. “But they had to remind me! I knew about it, then I forgot about it, then it hits you when you walk in the door — but it’s easy, it’s fast.”

“I looked at all those lizards and bears, they helped,” said Kay Homan, a paralegal, referring to the city’s votedifferentsantafe.com cartoon animal election, intended to illustrate a ranked-choice contest.

Homan, like many of the earliest early voters, said she fully grasped the system but would reserve judgment on its effectiveness until after election day.

“To me, it was easy,” she said. “I’m wondering how it’s going to work.”

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

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