What Happened?

Officials say late election results might be the new normal

Santa Fe's first "instant runoff" election took about five hours of waiting before it came into focus.

Just why it took so long, however, is still unclear.

The polls closed at 7 pm, and there were no reports of lengthy lines at any of the 12 voting convenience centers. Within an hour, results from each of the tabulating machines were being taped to windows and walls at the Atalaya Elementary and Gonzales Community schools and other sites.

SFR had vote-watchers gathering totals at each site, and by 9 pm, all of the centers had posted their totals except Salazar Elementary, where the presiding judge told a poll watcher that workers were still counting votes.

The early tabulations were important to give campaigns and anyone else who was interested a look at how the races, in particular the one for mayor, was playing out. But from City Hall's perspective, they didn't matter much.

After she'd announced the results just before midnight, City Clerk Yolanda Vigil told SFR that while Gonzales was the first center to post its results, it was the last to actually deliver memory cards from the machines to City Hall.

Vigil told reporters that Gonzales' status as one of the most popular vote centers—"We're the big dog," a judge there told SFR—meant that it took longer to verify the approximately 2,000 votes there.

"It was a great turnout. So, the one who had the most votes, Gonzales, they were really busy," Vigil said.

But just before 11 pm, the city clerk told SFR that she had the final two memory cards in hand and expected results shortly. That wouldn't happen for almost another hour.

Vigil said the delay wasn't due to software, but to city staff, including attorneys, wanting to understand how each round played out. Both city attorney Kelley Brennan and her assistant, Zach Shandler, were sitting with Vigil, Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar, the absentee ballot board and two representatives from Dominion Voting Systems, which designed both the voting machines and the ranked-choice software. (Shandler led the city's unsuccessful attempt to thwart the system which had been approved by voters in 2008.)

According to the city clerk, the software was up to snuff. Dominion didn't return a request for comment by SFR.

"It's actually like this," Vigil said, snapping her fingers. "But we wanted to look at it round by round and understand."

Meanwhile, Santa Fe waited.

A key difference in tallying the ranked-choice vote was the potential for multiple rounds of recalculations. Unlike standard balloting, where votes that aren't particularly close can be adjusted during canvassing after election night, a runoff-style system is somewhat more demanding. Because of the importance of second-place votes, there's pressure to get all the ballots onto a memory card that can be tabulated by the software.

Indeed, in the third round, Kate Noble was eliminated by just 89 votes.

Vigil blamed part of the delay on nine votes that had to be transferred to new ballots either because the machine couldn't read them or they had been emailed in by voters overseas. However, state law allows election officials to begin counting such ballots when the polls open on Election Day. It's not clear why Vigil felt that handful of ballots was partially responsible for the delay in reporting.

"Those ballots had to be remarked, so we had to reprint new ballots and then we had to remark them. So we had to match them up," Vigil said. "That's the limitations of ranked-choice voting."

She acknowledged that a new system may have slowed down the counting process. The voting convenience center ballot-machine memory cards didn't have any issues, she said, aside from when they arrived.

A man who left Salazar late in the evening and before totals were posted identified himself as "tech support" and told a reporter he was there to help, but the clerk did not return requests Wednesday from SFR to further explain the counting process or what was happening at the school.

Will the next election in two years be more familiar for poll workers or faster for those compiling results? Vigil said possibly, but only at the voting centers, not back at City Hall.

"I honestly don't think we'd be able to knock off any [time]," she said before heading home.

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