The city of Santa Fe’s wishy washiness over ranked-choice voting is going to confuse even the most steadfast voter. Delays. Appeals. Half-hearted attempts to implement what the voters approved. Frankly, if citizens enjoy the holidays and refocus on the city election sometime in mid-January, they might be better off. By then, there could be certainty about what will happen.
First some background. In 2008, the residents of Santa Fe passed a charter amendment calling for the implementation of ranked-choice voting, a system that allows voters to support more than one candidate by ranking each in order of preference. It’s designed to make sure (mostly) that whoever wins in a race with more than two candidates has a majority of support; the ranked-choice nature of the election goes into effect only after one candidate fails to get a majority on the first counting of ballots. The charter amendment called for ranked-choice voting to start as soon as the technology became available.
Fast-forward to 2017. In the nine years since the charter amendment passed, no City Council or mayor — and there has been a rotating cast — bothered to help lay the foundation for what would happen once voting machines were equipped with the necessary technology. The council did not approve ordinances spelling out how Santa Fe would go about counting ballots or otherwise set the parameters for a ranked-choice election. No voter education was done, either, to alert citizens that this measure was on the way.
Last summer, we learned that the technology was about to be certified by the state of New Mexico and that soon, perhaps in time for the March municipal election, machines that would allow voters to rank their choices could be used. Did the council then move to set up the rules for ranked-choice voting? Did the council rush to embrace the will of the voters? Not exactly. A majority of councilors chose delay, worrying that there would not be enough time to prepare for the election.
Ranked-choice voting supporters took to court, and last month, District Judge David Thomson ruled that since the machines were ready and had been certified, charter amendment language requires the city to conduct the March city election using ranked-choice voting. That led to a subsequent vote by city councilors, backed by Mayor Javier Gonzales, to begin preparing rules for the election.
But, leaders then decided to take another, opposite, approach — at the same time, appealing the District Court decision to the Supreme Court with the argument that the charter amendment violates the state constitution. This would, by the way, be the same charter amendment previously vetted by city lawyers and passed by voters.
Here’s the new argument. Yes, the constitution allows certain municipalities to set up runoff elections. However, ranked-choice voting is not a runoff. The city brief states, “the question is whether ranked choice voting (or ‘instant runoff voting’) is a runoff election contemplated by the amendment. It is not. If the Legislature wanted to propose a constitutional amendment authorizing ‘ranked choice voting’ or ‘instant runoff voting” the Legislature could have done so, but it did not.”
At the time the charter amendment was approved, however, then-City Attorney Frank Katz had this to say: “ ‘The Constitutional Amendment that provided for municipal runoff elections did not impose limits on a home rule municipality’s method of implementing runoff elections.’ In his formal legal opinion, he noted that the Constitutional Amendment did not: define ‘runoff election,’ restrict the type of runoff, determine what percentage of votes must be achieved, or provide any other details.”
Whatever the justices decide, may they do so quickly. Voters deserve certainty about what will happen in an election — including how they will vote, how the votes will be counted and what happens after all the ballots are added up. A big question: Will there even be a winner? (One proposal to ensure a majority winner is to conduct an actual runoff if the instant runoff does not produce a candidate with more than 50 percent of the vote after all ballots are counted. We say that’s one fix too many.)
And so it goes, in the mess that our municipal election is rapidly becoming.
The bottom line: A city that is following the will of the 65 percent of the voters who approved ranked-choice voting should not also be seeking — aggressively — to have the system thrown out. That seems disingenuous at best, especially after city leaders past and present failed to follow through with setting up sensible election procedures. It’s unnecessary to have technology in hand to develop ordinances on how votes will be counted and the like. (Please, can we learn from this — after charter amendments are passed, set up working committees to plan their implementation?)
For now, Santa Fe must muddle through. But quickly, because only about six weeks are left between now and the start of voting (absentee voting by mail begins Jan. 30). The city, rather than trying to stop the system voters chose, needs to concentrate on making sure the election runs smoothly. If ranked-choice voting is bad, then put forth another charter amendment and repeal it. Until that happens, follow the charter and the judge’s order. To do otherwise is to act in bad faith.