Each weekday morning, the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe comes to life slowly. A few tourists are usually out for a jog, fighting the surprisingly thin air. Merchants make a quick check of window displays and sweep away any trash that’s found its way to their doorstep.
In the southwest part of town, however, Santa Fe has been awake hours before the bells first ring at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis. Cars zip back and forth along Cerrillos and Airport Roads. Parents are hustling kids to school or daycare, then scrambling to get to work. There are more kids here than any other part of town. There are more people, too.
But there aren't more voters. The city is divided into four City Council districts, and the two with the wealthiest residents—Districts 1 and 2—have more than twice the registered voters of District 3. Even the south-central District 4 comes close to doubling its neighbor to the west.
While the city's last round of redistricting produced four districts with roughly equal total population—currently the only legally acceptable way to adjust representation—the makeup of the roughly 20,000 people in each district is remarkably different.
Not only are there fewer voters in District 3, those people who do register are also less likely to cast a ballot. In the last municipal election, fewer than 7 percent turned out. That's roughly one in every 14 registered voters. The rest of the city better than doubled that number, too.
That sort of disparity makes for an interesting electoral dynamic for the May 2 special election to levy a 2-cents-per-ounce sugary-beverage tax. Household income in District 3 is less than almost every other part of town, which means a family is more likely to drink sugary beverages, according to well-established research.
But with twice the number of kids as District 1, according to advocates for the tax, the southwest side of town would be more likely to benefit from the pre-kindergarten programs the tax aims to fund. They estimate the tax would create 177 extra spots for 3- and 4-year-olds in District 3.
So what is a parent or an interested citizen on the Southside to consider when staring at that one, lone question on the ballot?
For many voters, University of New Mexico Political Science Department Chair Tim Krebs says the choice will come down to a preference between the more immediate, individual economic effect—how much sugary stuff you drink and how you think it'll affect your bank account—and the benefit that will come later through more abstract measures like a potential spot in a pre-kindergarten program, better-educated kids and healthier families.
That makes the ultimate outcome of that conflict at the ballot box hard to predict.
"You think of this as kind of a no-brainer for liberal Democratic voters," Krebs tells SFR on the phone from a political science conference.
Krebs explains there's likely to be much stronger turnout from wealthier voters in the north and east sides of the city. Among these are people who make more money, are less likely to drink soda and, despite being less likely to benefit from expanded pre-K, still favor the tax.
The problem for those who are against the tax is that the kind of "liberal" voters Krebs describes make up a huge part of Santa Fe's voting population. District 3 voters who might balk at the higher cost of sugary drinks are outnumbered: For every one registered voter in District 3, there are nearly four and a half voters registered in Districts 1 and 2.
"There's definitely a divide in the city in terms of income inequality," says David Huynh, the former Hillary Clinton staffer now running the Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K political committee that's against the tax. He and others argue the tax is easy for wealthier voters to handle.
"A lot of people look at this issue and say it's really a pocketbook issue for them," says Huynh.
Krebs says the tax would almost certainly be dead in the water if it weren't tied to pre-kindergarten programs. Not only is a new tax of any kind a hard sell, but anti-tax voters—that often means Republicans—are more likely to vote in such elections.
"We are spending a lot of time talking to families about the benefits," Sandra Wechsler tells SFR. The political consultant spearheading the effort for the sugary-drink tax says the Pre-K for Santa Fe group is focusing on the long-term benefits like healthy families and the downward pressure more pre-K seats will put on the cost of early childhood education across the city.
The stakes are high. Anti-tax players like Big Soda and pro-tax advocates like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg have poured more than $1.5 million into the campaign. Early voting starts today.