Last summer, the Santa Fe City Council blew the opportunity to lay a foundation for implementing ranked-choice voting in the city. Councilors dragged their feet. To be fair, they had understandable worries about whether the city would have enough time to change its election system before the March 2018 municipal vote.
On Tuesday, District Court Judge David Thomson took their excuses away. Ranked-choice voting software has been certified and is ready for use in 2018 elections statewide, according to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Kari Fresquez, state elections director. Both testified earlier this week that Santa Fe can prepare for the March elections, with Toulouse Oliver saying, “The city can make a determination as to whether the technology is available. We’re telling you it’s available.”
With that statement, it appeared obvious what would happen next. Sure enough, Judge Thomson spent the evening reviewing testimony and emerged Wednesday morning to order the city to follow its own charter, essentially saying that elected officials can’t choose to delay the will of the people. In his words: “The court finds the governing body has breached its non-discretionary duty.”
Voters approved moving to ranked-choice voting in 2008; the delay came because software that would allow ranked-choice voting wasn’t available until this year. In July, we wrote that the City Council needed to take seriously the reality that voters wanted the new system. We said that if the state could certify the new machines by Oct. 1, the city should move forward. Toulouse Oliver did the certification Sept. 27. The city chose to delay implementation until 2020. Now, instead of being in the midst of preparations for ranked-choice voting, the city will have to start from scratch.
Rather than continue stalling, Santa Fe should listen to the judge — and most of all, to the voters — and ensure voters will be able to rank the candidates of their choice come March. Considering that a separate charter election gave the mayor both more power and a fat paycheck, it is preferable that he or she take office with broad support. Without ranked-choice voting and with five mayoral candidates, that could be unlikely.
Start preparing for ranked-choice voting. We called for preliminary work back in July and that didn’t happen. Now, Santa Fe has but three months to get this new way of voting up and running. The City Council first needs to decide how ballots will be counted. In ranked-choice voting, there is a sort of instant runoff. Voters rank their choices (they don’t have to rank every candidate, evidently) and if no candidate wins a majority, the lowest-polling candidate drops off and votes are counted again. And so on, until a winner backed by a majority of voters emerges.
The system would be used in all races with more than two candidates. This March, that would mean ranked-choice voting for mayor, as well as the District 2 and District 4 council seats, with three candidates each.
The city must educate voters. Santa Fe residents are no dummies. They can figure out how to rank a slate of candidates. But showing examples, giving presentations and otherwise getting the word out is necessary. Voter groups that back ranked-choice voting have said they will assist in voter education. We’re confident Toulouse Oliver and her staff will be available. City Clerk Yolanda Vigil, always a cautious and careful public official, should welcome all the assistance she can get.
What can’t happen is for ranked-choice voting to turn into a mess. Major Javier Gonzales announced on Twitter that he will introduce an emergency resolution to allocate $300,000 for the public education and implementation process. A special meeting is set for 3:30 p.m. Monday to discuss what to do next.
The people spoke in 2008. The judge spoke this week. Now, it’s time to act.