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Countdown begins for the city’s first ranked-choice election

"This is not rocket science."

So said Cris Moore when I tracked him down by phone at a conference last week to talk about ranked-choice voting, which the City of Santa Fe will employ in its March 6 municipal election. Moore served two terms as a city councilor for District 2 starting in 1994 and, while he's not a rocket scientist, he is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute and works, as his homepage says, "at the interface of physics, computer science and mathematics." After a week of talking to various folks about RCV, I decided Moore was my best bet for posing questions about the math behind ranked-choice voting, although arithmetic is significantly below his normal area of expertise.

Sometimes for fun, I examine previous election results and occasionally import them into spreadsheets to try to predict future election outcomes (note to self: get life). My algorithmic methods are clumsy and lack rigor, but seem nonetheless safer than throwing a dart at a board, given my lack of hand-eye coordination.

As the mayoral race heats up in Santa Fe, my errant number-crunching seems less useful than ever.

Ranked-choice voting requires a winning candidate to receive at least 50 percent plus one vote of the total votes cast. Should no winner emerge on the first go-around, the candidate with the fewest number of first-place votes is eliminated and his or her second-place ranked candidates are redistributed. And so it goes until the 50 percent-plus-one mark is reached. That 50 percent-plus-one figure will be tallied based on the number of ballots remaining should an instant runoff scenario take place and some voters have not ranked a second-place candidate.

In March, five candidates will be ranked for mayor, and three of the four council seats have contested races. So preparing to vote means not just picking a first or second choice, but—to fully participate—ranking from top to bottom. I've heard a slew of theories this week about not just who will be #5, but who #5's first-place voters will choose for their second- and third-choice ranks. The math in play once votes are cast isn't particularly complicated, but the psychology of assessing the field in this new system has a crapshoot element to it that makes me yearn for some current poll numbers.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research and Polling, says his company has not been hired by any candidate as of yet in the city's election, nor has the company previously polled for a ranked-choice election. But in this scenario, Sanderoff says, "you would add some additional questions to try to replicate the voter's ballot experience."

Those responses would be used to simulate a calculation using the same math RCV requires. Like most elections, the poll's conclusion would vary depending on when voters were polled and the ever-present "undecided" voter factor.

Maria Perez, director of FairVote New Mexico and a party in the lawsuit that forced the city's hand on the issue, confirmed that her organization is working on a poll, but says none of the questions have been finalized. At the national level, FairVote—an advocate for ranked-choice—has amassed data assessing voters' reactions and experiences in response to such elections.

As for the city, it is now in a countdown to educate voters prior to when they cast ballots. Last week, officials convened three meetings to share information with civic organizations. I attended one Jan. 4 at the Southside public library, where city Public Information Officer Matt Ross walked attendees from groups such as the Santa Fe Community Foundation and the League of Women Voters through FAQs Absentee voting begins Jan. 30 and early voting starts Feb. 14.

This week, the city kicks off another series of forums for the general public to allow them to ask questions as well as practice-vote on a ballot with animal characters. The actual ballot isn't ready yet, but will be modeled on the California ballot from jurisdictions using the same Dominion Voting machines and software.

The city's emphasis on the voter experience makes sense, as the process will be quite different. Voters who choose not to rank the entire roster, for instance, will receive some sort of message (as yet unreleased) giving them the opportunity to redo their ballots. Twice as many poll workers will be on hand to help voters. And voters will be allowed unlimited ballots should they make mistakes and need to start again.

Advocates say ranked-choice voting also changes candidates' strategies and experiences. As Moore points out, the Green Party (of which Moore was a notable member during his City Council tenure) was more active in New Mexico a decade ago, when city voters approved the charter amendment to allow its use in city elections. Ranked-choice voting was seen as a way of allowing voters to choose candidates without worrying about a spoiler effect. This seems less pertinent in non-partisan races such as the city's, but running for a rank may diminish candidates' motivation to attack or alienate opponents and their constituencies.

"It gives the candidates an incentive," Moore says. "You don't want the other candidates' supporters to think of you as a bitter, angry person. What it lets voters do is vote for philosophies in addition to people."

As for election night, it remains to be seen what that will look like. Dominion Voting spokeswoman Kay Stimson confirms that the city will have a staff training on Jan. 16 to review all the system's options "and help city officials decide what reporting functionality they want on election night."

The city held a special election in March in which voters cast ballots for the first time at convenience centers rather than precinct-based polling places. The city clerk presented tallies that broke down votes by district from each center as they came in. It's not clear how RCV results will be reported.

The city, Stimson says, "has not yet provided a determination to us on how they want to release results on election night, but we are actively in collaboration to identify all workable options and help the clerk's office thoroughly vet those options to select the best choice." SFR was unable to reach City Clerk Yolanda Vigil prior to deadline, but an employee in the clerk's office confirmed decisions about election night reporting are still pending.

The one prediction I'll stand by is that, whatever happens election night, the more information the public receives in real time, the better.

Public Forum on Ranked-Choice Voting

6 pm Tuesday Jan. 16. Free.
Santa Fe Public Library Southside, 6599 Jaguar Drive, 955-2820.
More dates:

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