The question, as pitched to voters in 2008, was fairly straightforward. If it could find an affordable, reliable way to do it, should the city start using an instant runoff system? Voters said yes.
Wednesday night, the City Council once more said it wasn't quite time.
Faced with what the majority of councilors felt was too little clearance between the city's election timeline and the state's schedule to certify software that could handle ranked-choice voting, the council voted to not use the system for the municipal election in March.
Ranked-choice voting allows for what amounts to an instant runoff for races that have more than two candidates. On the ballot, voters rank candidates in order of their preference. If no one wins a majority of votes, the last-place person is eliminated and results are recalculated using the second choice of the eliminated candidate's voters. That process continues until someone tops 50 percent.
For years, ranked-choice voting has been little more than a concept. The software didn't exist for the machines used by the state. (New Mexico law requires the same voting machines to be used statewide.) Then, it became an expensive concept, but one that was theoretically possible. In a June 23 memo from City Clerk Yolanda Vigil to city councilors, the clerk said the cost to install ranked-choice voting software on the current machines had dropped to just $40,000. She asked councilors to decide if there was time to roll out the system called for by city law.
But councilors on Wednesday expressed little faith in the ability of voting machine manufacturer Dominion to meet an August 25 deadline for independent verification of its software. The Secretary of State's Office said Dominion had given it that date, which would enable an October 1 state certification.
While that theoretically gives the city time to roll out the new system and educate voters before the March 6, 2018 election, Vigil said it has the potential to change the rules for candidates a month after they receive packets that lay out rules and regulations for the election. Vigil plans to send them out just before Labor Day, on September 1, a few days ahead of the deadline set by city ordinance.
"It's a decision of do we want to send a packet with all of the city's code … without them knowing if we are doing ranked-choice voting or not?" Vigil told councilors.
Vigil also worried about not having enough time to educate voters about the new system.
Councilor Renee Villarreal, who early on in debate said she was skeptical of Dominion's timeline, proposed approving the system with the provision that the city would only use it if the state certified the software by October 1. Mayor Javier Gonzales later picked up on the idea and gained the support of Councilor Joseph Maestas, but ultimately, the four other councilors present voted against rolling out the system approved by voters nearly a decade ago.
While Santa Fe would be the first city in New Mexico to use ranked-choice voting, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is supportive of the idea. In fact, Deputy Secretary of State John Blair told SFR on Wednesday that the state planned to pay for the software upgrade. That was news to Vigil, who said that former secretary Dianna Duran told the city it would have to pay for its own ranked-choice software.
The council's decision means it could be years before the city implements ranked-choice voting. In fact, if the secretary of state does provide the software statewide, another city could conceivably adopt and implement a plan before Santa Fe despite the system having been enshrined in the city charter since 2008.
In his final plea to councilors Wednesday, Mayor Gonzales worried about a legal challenge to the city if it chose not to use ranked-choice voting in 2018.
"We could be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good," Gonzales said. "I think it would be tough to say, 'Well, we had software that was certified on time, but we just didn't think it was enough time.'"