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Santa Fe prepares for its third go at ranked choice voting on Nov. 2

Several voters SFR encountered leaving the polls in 2018 after casting their ballots in the municipal election said they had found the city’s first foray into ranked choice voting confusing.

Some had given it a go and ranked all five mayoral candidates; others chose their first and second choices; others stuck to traditional voting and only marked their first—and only—choice.

The following year, voters returned to the polls for City Council races, but only one contest—for District 4—drew enough candidates to qualify for RCV and, when Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez garnered nearly 57% of votes in the first round to win the race, it ended the need for a so-called “instant runoff.”

This year, on Nov. 2, just two races will provide the opportunity for voters to rank candidates: the three-way mayoral contest and the four-candidate District 1 City Council race. But both will build upon the growing body of data RCV is amassing. According to the national nonprofit FairVote, as of last month, 22 jurisdictions had used RCV in their most recent elections, 20 more will use it for the first time next month and at least 50 jurisdictions are expected to use ranked choice voting in either their next election or the one that follows.

Proponents maintain RCV yields more civil discourse, opens a pathway to new candidates and provides voters with more options. Still, skepticism remains among some who question whether the system benefits voters sufficiently to justify some of the confusion it engenders and provides the advantages it suggests.

People on both sides believe RCV will require more time and ongoing outreach to fully demonstrate its promise.

“It remains a good government approach to electing our public servants into office,” Mario Jimenez, campaign director for Common Cause New Mexico, says. “With that said, it would behoove us as nonprofit organizations, as media outlets, as elected officials and election administrators to continue to educate the public about ranked choice voting. As long as we continue to amplify and educate around RCV, it will become more favorable and that’s something we need to focus on not just every four years.”

First, a reminder of how RCV works. In contests with more than two candidates, voters can—but don’t have to— rank the candidates, marking their first, second, third and so-on choices.

A candidate then requires at least 50% plus at least one vote to win. If no candidate reaches that threshold on the first tally, an instant runoff commences: The candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and that candidate’s second choice votes are distributed. This continues until a candidate passes the 50% threshold.

In 2018, the mayoral competition lasted into the fourth round when Mayor Alan Webber bested former City Councilor Ron Trujillo with 66% of the vote. At the time, Trujillo told SFR he had worked hard to secure second-place votes in the contest. Since then, Trujillo has become an outspoken critic of Webber and a supporter of challenger City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler. He remains unsold on ranked choice voting.

“I can tell you this: The voters were uninformed on how ranked choice voting works, and that’s an unfortunate thing because people I talk to… they just wanted to vote for one person,” he says. “This time around I’m telling people, ‘if you feel you want to vote for one person, vote for one person. You don’t have to vote for all three people. And do not put Alan’s name anywhere.’”

Indeed, the civility that purportedly marked the mayor’s race in 2018—another selling point for RCV—has a narrow focus this time around. Neither Webber nor Vigil Coppler would appear to be courting second-place votes from one another’s bases. But should Webber fail to secure more than 50% of the vote on the first round, second place votes from candidate Alexis Martinez Johnson could become key. Four years ago, Webber captured close to 72% of Kate Noble’s votes after she was eliminated in the third round, with just 89 votes separating her and Trujillo.

“I guess I think on balance it’s probably a better way to vote,” Noble, president of the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education tells SFR, noting that her campaign four years ago encouraged voters to mark her second if she wasn’t their first choice. “We did somewhat,” she says. “We also knew how it would go and that I was pretty clear, just talking to voters, I was the second choice with many people who would put Alan Webber as their first, and I didn’t think he was going to be eliminated early.”

This year, common sense would indicate Webber is less likely to pick up significant second-place votes from either of his competitors. But they are both taking RCV into account.

Alexis Martinez Johnson has openly asked voters to consider her as their second choice if she doesn’t garner their first-place vote. She tells SFR both Webber and JoAnne Vigil Coppler are “trying to get some of my voting bloc.”

Vigil Coppler’s campaign says that’s true.

“It definitely is a factor,” Vigil Coppler’s campaign manager Sisto Abeyta says, although he notes that with a larger field of candidates, “it would have been a much more calculated strategy. Right now, we feel like the only people we have to talk to about that ranked choice [are] Martinez Johnson voters.”

Webber’s campaign manager, Sandra Wechsler, tells SFR via a written statement: “We’re just out educating voters about how it works and talking about issues that matter like COVID, affordable housing and sustainability—it’s up to the voters to decide who wins at the end of the day.”

Civility in ranked choice contests remains an open question from an academic point of view. A recent study analyzing candidate tweets and newspaper articles in RCV races generally found a more positive political climate. That study’s author, Martha Kropf, a professor in the University of North Carolina, Charlotte’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration, notes what her research doesn’t address “is the idea that sometimes candidates won’t do the heavy lifting when it comes to being nasty,” but outside groups still contribute to a negative campaign environment. “I think mine provides some evidence that ranked choice voting can definitely be more positive,” Kropf tells SFR. “I do think it’s pretty clear that this needs to be analyzed carefully now.”

In the four-way District 1 race, incumbent Councilor Signe Lindell says ranked-choice voting isn’t playing a role in her campaign. “We’ve just run a regular race asking for people’s vote. I think people still remain somewhat confused on how it works and a lot of people think that there’s some way to game the system with it.”

Two of her challengers, Joe Hoback and Brian Gutierrez, say they are definitely talking to voters about ranked choice voting.

“I kind of feel like I have a lot of people who say, ‘I have an allegiance to another candidate,’ so I say, ‘please put me down as number two.’ I make sure to make that point,” Hoback says. He also has been explaining the system to many people, he says. “People kind of throw up their hands and say, ‘I’m going to vote like I always have in the past.’”

Gutierrez says RCV “absolutely plays a part in the strategy of the race in District 1,” but that perhaps 80% of those he’s encountered “don’t like the idea [and] they are confused on top of the fact that they don’t like the idea.” That being said, Gutierrez says he thinks the opportunity to appeal to other candidates’ supporters has made the race more civil and has opened up opportunities to talk to people “who are endorsing someone else, because at that point you want to be everybody’s second [choice]. So, if I see a sign for an opponent, I don’t shy away from it. I go and introduce myself.”

District 1 candidate Roger Carson did not return requests for comment.

While anecdotal evidence indicates RCV remains confusing for voters, 2018 exit polling in Santa Fe indicated otherwise, with 67% of those surveyed saying they hadn’t found the ballot confusing and 71% saying ranked choice voting should be used for future mayoral and City Council races. Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark tells SFR poll workers have received special training on ranked choice voting, and there are also materials at polling places explaining the system.

Confusion aside, other survey results appear less conclusive. For instance, 51% of Santa Fe voters in 2018 said RCV had made them more likely to vote for their favorite candidate, while 46% said it had made no difference. As for the tone of the mayoral campaign, 34% thought it had been a more positive than prior ones, 33% thought it had been “somewhat more positive” and about 30% thought it had been the same.

“I’ve never been fully on board with ranked choice voting,” University of New Mexico Professor Emeritus Lonna Atkeson, who helped oversee the survey, says. Now director of the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University, Atkeson concludes: “I’m not sure it provides the benefits it suggests that it does.”

A small majority of locals surveyed four years ago—53%—also indicated they would like to see primary and general elections run with the RCV option. That won’t happen overnight, according to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

“My opinion has always been that it’s really important to give something like this a try locally and see how people like it,” Toulose Oliver says. “This is still a relatively new voting system. It is going to take time. Folks have been voting ‘pick one’ our whole lives and now we’re being asked to rank three or more.” Moreover, implementing RCV at the state level would require a constitutional amendment and legislative authorization.

Toulouse Oliver also agrees on the importance for ongoing RCV education, given that some voters who didn’t vote in prior elections will be encountering it for the first time. “From my vantage point, sitting here as a Santa Fe voter, the city really went all out in the first election and did a lot of good voter education,” she says. “I still see them making efforts. I got my postcard in the mail, ‘Vote Different Santa Fe.’ It just takes time and it takes familiarity.”

Maria Perez, who was director of FairVote New Mexico when RCV was implemented and is now founder and co-director of Democracy Rising, agrees year-round education is important, not just for voters, but to encourage more candidates who might not otherwise run for office. “We have this system in place in Santa Fe…anyone who has a vision for the community can throw their hat in the race and run for office. It is disappointing to me in this mayoral race we only have three candidates and it’s disappointing to me we only have one district race that has more than two candidates,” Perez says.

That lower candidate participation, Toulouse Oliver notes, may also be due to the current political climate.

“We’re in a very toxic political world right now in this country,” she says. The lack of candidates could be awareness, and it could also be a general, ‘if I put myself out there what does that mean for me and my life?”

That toxic environment of which Toulouse Oliver speaks seems to have overshadowed another political factor that once influenced support for RCV: concerns about third-party spoilers, which led to strong Green Party support for RCV back in the day. Former city Councilor Cris Moore, who served two terms for District 2 starting in 1994, initially won his seven-candidate race with about 34% of the vote. Although city elections are nonpartisan, Moore’s then standing as a Green (he’s since changed party affiliation to the Democratic Party) was well known, and Greens were early and strong advocates for the RCV system.

“In my race, there were other candidates I agreed with on a lot of things. If we had RCV at the time, I would have encouraged my supporters to give [other candidates] their second choice votes and I hope they would have done the same,” Moore, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, says. Still: “If I were advising a voting rights activist about what to focus on right now, since I think voting is under attack at a very basic level, I would encourage people to fight back and protect voting on a very basic level. But back in the 1990s, it didn’t feel like that attack was going on. It felt like we had the luxury of thinking more carefully about how a democracy works.”

Nonetheless, “I still think it’s a good reform,” he says. “I’m glad we did it.”

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