Capital Voter Gains

Santa Fe voter turnout could slow from past elections, but campaigns take note of the city’s shifting demographics and Southside growth

Those who live in Santa Fe, and thus the voters who elect the city’s leaders, are changing. Over the last decade the expansion and shifts are disproportionate, however, with some districts growing explosively, while others stagnate.

According to data from the 2010 and 2020 census, Southside District 4′s population of eligible voters swelled by almost 32% compared to Districts 1 and 2 on the east side of town, which grew by 2% and 9%, respectively. Even District 3 in the southwestern part of the city saw only moderate growth compared to District 4, increasing 9% in the last decade.

Increased voter registration accompanied the population growth on the Southside. More people are actually registering to vote, too. Citywide, the number of registered voters jumped from 54,156 in 2018 to 60,331 currently, with District 4 picking up twice as many new voters as any other district, records from the Santa Fe County clerk show.

While this growth has placed an inordinate demand on housing in Santa Fe, the political impact of more voters on the Southside has yet to be determined.

Registered Voters by District
Total for 2021: 60,331
TotaL for 2018: 54,156

District 1
Registered 2021: 18,710 
Registered 2018: 17,306

District 2
Registered 2021: 16,550 
Registered 2018: 15,509 

District 3
Registered 2021: 9,113
Registered 2018: 7,632

District 4
Registered 2021: 15,958 
Registered 2018: 13,709

With a growing population and a relatively high voter turnout, District 4 is situated to contribute moderately to the upcoming Nov. 2 citywide mayoral race between its incumbent Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, Mayor Alan Webber and former congressional candidate Alexis Martinez Johnson. Vigil Coppler did not seek re-election to her seat, and two women are also on the ballot in the district to replace her.

Sisto Abeyta, political strategist for Vigil Coppler’s campaign, says District 4 voter turnout in the last mayoral race—36% of registered voters in the district cast a ballot in the last round—forecasts potential advantages for the councilor who represents the Southside district.

Not everyone in the race agrees.

“Whoever wins District 1 is more likely to win the mayor’s race,” says Danny Maki, a political consultant working on the Webber campaign. “District 1 plays a big role.”

It’s no secret the northernmost district, where most of the city’s wealth is concentrated, has the largest number of voters in Santa Fe who consistently show up for elections.

Political consultants all agree Districts 1 and 2 have high numbers of likely voters—both reporting roughly 40% voter turnout in the 2018 mayoral race—while District 3 has fewer engaged residents. In 2018, 19% of registered voters took part in that district.

Despite the growth in the Southside’s population, political experts look to recent elections and point to the number of participating voters on the Southside versus the eastern districts. Abeyta concedes, “40% of the vote comes from the Southside, 60% comes from the east side.”

Lonna Atkeson, former director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy and professor emerita at the university, says candidates need to work to turn out their base.

“As long as there is competition, turnout will be high,” Atkeson writes to SFR in an email. “With social media campaigns and competition, I expect turnout to at least meet if not exceed those in the previous election.”

“But there’s a lot of churning in an electorate and a lot has happened,” Atkeson continues, acknowledging that Vigil Coppler’s advantage in District 4 may be hampered by Webber loyalists who voted for him in 2018.

While Webber has the financial upper hand, Atkeson adds, when “people are angry they like to punish [the incumbent] and that should be good for the challenger.”

Other political analysts believe the high number of voters who turned out for the 2018 mayoral election may not carry over to 2021. Maki suspects fewer voters will turn out this year compared to 2018

That year, voters encountered “an open mayor’s race...and they implemented the new ranked choice voting in 2018. You had five candidates in 2018,” Maki says, citing those factors as contributors to the high rate of participation. “There was a lot of energy and excitement that was coming off with the soda tax vote in 2017. So there were a lot more people engaged.”

Alternatively, coming off the dumpster-fire 2020 election, Maki says people in Santa Fe were heavily invested in kicking the former president out of office: “Sometimes that carries over to the next election as voter fatigue.”

Neri Holguin, a longtime political consultant who worked on Webber’s first run and is currently heading Tim Keller’s re-election bid in Albuquerque, acknowledges this year’s mayoral race in the capital city feels particularly divisive. But she says the tension isn’t new to Santa Fe and has existed in previous years.

She doesn’t expect it will significantly pull out more voters.

“You’re going to see just a lot of the similar voting trends. I mean, things don’t change that dramatically from one election cycle to the next,” Holguin tells SFR, continuing, “You’ll see a similar turnout in terms of parts of the city.”

As for that similar turnout, Holguin projects it will play out in the sitting mayor’s favor. Despite the vocal opposition to the mayor from some groups in the city, Holguin doesn’t expect it to translate into significant gains for Vigil Coppler.

“She is really counting on an anti-Alan vote,” Holguin says. But she explains that Webber’s supporters haven’t abandoned him for his opponents. “What we’re seeing in terms of endorsements and fundraising, there’s not a lot of attrition,” she tells SFR.

Holguin echoes Maki’s predictions of voter fatigue and adds, “We know in municipal elections turnout is lower.” The lack of state or federal issues on the ballot could also contribute to low turnout this election cycle.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Lonna Atkeson’s title.

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