Sometime long after dark on Nov. 14, Albuquerque voters will know who is going to be their next mayor. And when either Tim Keller or Dan Lewis takes that first elevator ride to the 11th floor of One Civic Plaza, he'll have a mandate to get started.
It's not likely Santa Fe's next mayor will have the same luxury.
There are seven people running for mayor of Santa Fe as of press time. And in the City Different, the winning candidate is simply the one who gets the most votes—be that 51 percent or 21 percent. Mayor Javier Gonzales won the last election with 43.3 percent of the vote, rising above Patti Bushee and Bill Dimas, but not above the 50 percent mark.
In contrast, Albuquerque recently changed its election rules to require that a candidate must receive a majority of the vote—often termed 50 percent plus one vote—to be declared the winner. The change was spurred on by Democrats after Republican businessman RJ Berry made his way to City Hall with 44 percent of the vote, and it's the reason voters in the Duke City have five more weeks of a runoff election in front of them.
"Compared to just having the candidate with the plurality of the vote automatically become mayor, one could argue that this system here in Albuquerque—at least for this election—created a circumstance where voters will have a choice between two candidates with very different philosophies," says political expert and pollster Brian Sanderoff of Research and Polling, Inc.
It's not a perfect system, Sanderoff says, because it automatically creates a frontrunner—in this case, Keller—if one candidate has a significantly higher vote total than the rest of the field. While Keller did win 39 percent of the votes in the first round of the election, six in 10 voters preferred someone else.
"Voting rules matter to outcomes and they're all biased in some way," says Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. A runoff election like Albuquerque's may not generate the same interest among voters as the initial contest.
"You almost always see a lower turnout in a runoff election," Atkeson tells SFR. "Maybe it's fatigue or it's, 'My guy didn't win, I don't care anymore.'"
But Atkeson points out that, in addition to conferring the legitimacy of a majority vote to the eventual winner, it gives voters a chance to consider a candidate they may not have given a second thought. It also gives the public and the press the opportunity to better vet potential candidates.
As an example of both the perils of not requiring a majority and the potential benefits of a runoff election, she points to Jerome Block, Jr., who won a six-way Democratic primary for a seat on the Public Regulation Commission in 2008 with just under 23 percent of the vote. Without a Republican opponent in the general election, Block effectively won a seat on the PRC. His term was filled with controversy, and he eventually resigned after being convicted of several felonies related to embezzlement and election law.
"How many people knew that he was a problem?" Atkeson wonders.
Santa Fe does have a way to ensure the women and men elected to City Hall do so by winning a majority of the vote. In 2008, voters approved a ranked-choice voting system. It asks voters to rank their choices for each office, then adds and rebalances the second choices of losing candidates until someone hits a majority. But because the change to the city charter approved by voters contains a clause allowing the city to wait until the system is available "at a reasonable price," Santa Fe has stuck with the status quo for nearly a decade.
"It strikes me as extremely undemocratic. It's unacceptable to me to elect a mayor without a mandate," says Maria Perez of FairVote New Mexico, a ranked-choice voting advocacy group. She and others are suing the city to force it to implement ranked-choice voting.
Even though the current cost estimate is $40,000 and the city spent twice that on a single issue election in May, the City Council voted against implementing the system in June over concerns that the New Mexico secretary of state had not certified its use. Last month, the secretary of state's Voting System Certification Committee recommended certifying the system, which the secretary did a few days later. Meanwhile, FairVote unsuccessfully tried to get the state Supreme Court to order the city to use the new system.
"Big win for the 28 percent who can now elect a mayor," tweeted Rob Richie, the national executive director of FairVote, in response to SFR's reporting of the Supreme Court's decision not to intervene ahead of the March 2018 election.
While he was being sarcastic, Richie's not wrong. And he may not be that far from being right.
"I've seen it," says former mayor David Coss. In 1994, he ran former mayor Debbie Jaramillo's campaign when she won with 38.6 percent of the vote in a field of 12—count 'em, 12—candidates.
"I think it gives the new mayor a little bit steeper climb," Coss tells SFR of the job mayors have ahead of them with a weak plurality. "You have to spend some time at the beginning establishing relationships with councilors and those segments of the community that were against you."
"It's not an insurmountable obstacle," he adds, "because most people want their mayors to succeed."
But Atkeson finds the current system ludicrous, especially considering Santa Fe put in place another change to the charter in 2014 that goes into effect next year. The newly elected mayor becomes what's known as a "strong" one, earning more money and gaining broad administrative authority and responsibility to hire and fire department heads, propose a budget to the City Council and control the daily ebb and flow of city services.
"The idea that we have a strong mayor system is horrible. They're supposed to come in with this agenda and priorities," Atkeson says.
As it stands now, Santa Fe's next mayor may well wield that power with just a small fraction of the city's electorate behind them.