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FairVote New Mexico sues city in effort to get ranked-choice voting

August 31, 2017 GMT

Nine years after Santa Feans cast ballots in favor of changing the way the city runs its elections, a group is suing the municipal government, asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to step in and finally order officials to use what is known as a ranked-choice voting system in March, when city voters will choose a new mayor and councilors.

The City Council voted 6-3 last month to put off using ranked-choice voting yet again, and advocates for the system argue officials are stalling.

“This is an insult to Santa Fe voters,” Maria Perez, director of FairVote New Mexico, told reporters Wednesday. She filed the lawsuit on behalf of the group, along with local voters Craig O’Hare, Ellen Ackerman and Anne Noss.

Several city councilors have raised concerns, however, that there is too little time to implement a new system before the March election, when voters will decide on the city’s first full-time mayor. Moreover, officials question whether there will be enough time for the public to understand it.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters casting ballots in races with multiple candidates can rank the candidates they prefer. If a candidate receives more than half the votes, they win. But if no candidate wins a majority of the votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated from the race. Votes from everyone who selected that candidate as their first choice then go to the voters’ second-choice candidates, and the ballots are counted again, with the process repeated until someone has a majority.

Proponents have long argued that the ranked-choice method would allow citizens to vote their conscience but still have a say in elections if they are backing a long-shot candidate or a candidate who might be considered a spoiler, splitting up supporters.

With the mayoral election about six months away, city officials have raised concerns about the time it would take to determine exactly how ranked-choice voting would work in Santa Fe as well as the equipment needed to implement it.

Councilors Carmichael Dominguez, Mike Harris, Peter Ives, Signe Lindell, Chris Rivera and Ron Trujillo voted against implementing ranked-choice voting, while Mayor Javier Gonzales and Councilors Joseph Maestas and Renee Villarreal voted to move forward with the system.

When Santa Fe residents approved an amendment to the city charter in 2008 requiring the government to use ranked-choice voting, the amendment set out a timeline: either by the 2010 municipal election or as soon as the software and equipment were available.

FairVote argues the machines the city will use for its elections in March have the capacity for ranked-choice voting at no additional cost to the city, which a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office confirmed Wednesday.

But City Clerk Yolanda Vigil told a reporter she had “no knowledge of that,” adding she had not yet heard from either the county clerk or the Secretary of State’s Office about the voting software.

The lawsuit was somewhat expected after last month’s council vote. But City Attorney Kelley Brennan said at the time that she was not too worried about defending the city if a lawsuit were filed.

Unclear is when the state Supreme Court will take up the case, although it could move relatively quickly, given the timing of the election.

FairVote’s Perez argued that the ranked-choice system is particularly important for the next election because voters will choose a full-time mayor with a higher salary. Gonzales received just 43 percent of votes in a three-way mayor’s race in 2014.

“It’s important the next mayor has a mandate,” Perez said.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.