A 17 percent voter turnout for an election might seem like little to brag about — but, as always, context is essential when evaluating the results of Santa Fe’s first consolidated municipal election this week.
That 17 percent is a vast improvement in voter participation for school board and community college board races, and it’s slightly above turnout in non-mayoral municipal elections. While 38 percent of registered voters took part in the 2018 municipal elections, when the job of mayor was on the ballot along with council seats, only about 15 percent of voters showed up in 2016 for council races and a municipal judge contest. Similarly, 10 percent of school board voters participated in 2017, and just 5.2 percent in 2015.
That’s why we are calling the move to consolidate local elections — everything from city races to school governing boards to seats on the water and soil districts — on the second Tuesday of every November in odd-numbered years a success. Engaging more voters to show up is essential to keeping our government functioning. The consolidated elections did that.
What would increase participation and interest is for elections to feature greater competition. In Albuquerque, where council races were contested and a number of ballot questions were being considered, voter turnout hit 23 percent of those registered — competition raises interest and draws people to the polls. As a point of comparison, the New York Times reports that only 27 percent of voters participate in the average municipal election; lagging civic engagement is a nationwide problem.
In Santa Fe, City Council candidates in Districts 1 and 3 ran unopposed. Both Renee Villarreal, District 1, and Chris Rivera, District 3, do a fine job representing constituents and Santa Fe, but opposition improves even the best public servants. Municipal Judge Virginia Vigil also was unopposed. This needs to change, both to increase the quality of public debate and to give voters reasons to get to the polls on Election Day.
Only residents of Districts 2 and 4 had a choice for city councilor; to all those who stepped up to run, citizens owe you thanks.
The two winning candidates, Michael J. Garcia, District 2, and Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez, District 4, represent a younger generation of leadership. Both Garcia and Cassutt-Sanchez are graduates of Santa Fe’s public schools who went on to obtain advanced degrees. Both have lived away from Santa Fe for portions of their adult lives, and both returned to their hometown as adults, ready to make a difference. Both have young children, too, which could translate into fewer meetings that linger into the wee hours of the morning — adults can be late to work on occasion, but kids can’t be tardy to school, so parents have every reason to end discussions at more reasonable hours.
The Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education also will have another parent of younger children on board. Nurse and mom Sarah Boses won the District 2 seat, replacing outgoing member Maureen Cashmon. Educator Carmen Gonzales won District 1, beating two-term incumbent Steven Carrillo. Unfortunately, Rudy Garcia faced no opposition in District 4, so he was reelected despite a spotty record of missing board meetings. The children and families of his district cannot afford an absentee board member, and neither can the rest of Santa Fe.
But competition won’t happen without a better pipeline for grooming future candidates. Yes, voters have a responsibility to participate in elections. They should show up and be counted. At the same time, voters want to have reasons to cast their ballots — and important reasons include offering smart discussions among a range of candidates.
The decision to consolidate all municipal elections has increased participation — every second Tuesday in November, there will be an election, whether local, state or national. Now, before another consolidated local election rolls around, let’s recruit more candidates and give voters a reason to show up and be counted.