Alibi V.28 No.19 • May 9-15, 2019 

On Assignment

Ranked Choice Voting and Burque

Local Election Act creates options

Maria Perez of Common Cause New Mexico
Maria Perez of Common Cause New Mexico

The Local Election Act, passed by the New Mexico Legislature in 2018, calls for broad election reforms to municipal voting practices in cities across the state. Among the mandates: Local elections will be timed to happen within a framework centered on the first Tuesday of November in election years.

City voters no longer have to worry about different dates for nonpartisan municipal elections, November runoffs, school board or water conservation district elections that happen in the middle of February or randomly throughout the year. The new consolidated system is designed to attract more voters per election and eliminate extra, costly separate voting periods by holding an all-encompassing vote that includes all the aforementioned on one ballot.

Bond issue and tax levy elections, like the much-derided APS funding vote that came and went earlier this year, are now handled as mail-in procedures. The poor ballot return rate and subsequent poor outcome of that election has some wondering whether all these reforms will work out in a demonstrably useful way.

But perhaps the most important part of this new law involves the implementation of ranked choice voting—also known as instant runoff voting—in municipalities across the state. Some cities—those with nonpartisan municipal elections with a runoff—can now opt into a system where voters rank candidates in a multi-candidate election. Due to the way the system works, there’s never any need for a runoff and a winner always becomes clear, based on voter choice.

Santa Fe has opted in. Las Cruces is about to do the same. And now our own City Council, including Pat Davis and Isaac Benton, is considering a similar move. We decided to go to the experts on this new fangled voting thing, Common Cause New Mexico, to find out exactly what ranked choice voting means for the citizens of Albuquerque.

Maria Perez, an expert on the subject, spoke at length with Weekly Alibi. Here are the details in print.

Weekly Alibi: Hi Maria, do you have a few minutes to talk to our readers about ranked choice voting?

Maria Perez: Oh yeah!

First, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your organization, Common Cause?

I am the campaign manager for Common Cause New Mexico. I started late last year. Previous to that, I was the director of Fair Vote New Mexico. Common Cause is a national organization that works on holding power accountable.

What do you mean by “holding power accountable?”

What I mean by that is making sure we are doing everything we can to mitigate the influence of money in politics. We work on a lot of projects, including redistricting, to make sure that voters have a voice. We were instrumental in assisting with ethics legislation here in New Mexico. We want to ensure that there’s a process so that citizens can file complaints and that those complaints will be followed up on.

How did Common Cause get involved in election reform and ranked choice voting?

Ranked choice voting is a project I was working on in my previous role at Fair Vote New Mexico. We got ranked choice voting implemented in Santa Fe last year and adopted in Las Cruces, too.

Let me clarify something. Does ranked choice voting only apply to municipal elections?

In the State of New Mexico, yes, that’s correct.

Okay, tell me more about it then.

Let me back up a little. That’s the work I was doing with Fair Vote New Mexico. As of last year, Common Cause was one of our partners in that work. They decided they would like to take the lead in this transition. So they absorbed the work and me as a staffer, so I could continue to move the project forward.

What exactly is ranked choice voting?

It’s a really basic change in the way we hold local elections. It has really profound effects on voting. In a nutshell—as a voter when you get your ballot at a local election—instead of just choosing one candidate above all the others, you get to rank the candidates on your ballot in order of preference. So you can mark your favorite candidate as number one. But in case they don’t have enough popular support to win, you are also going to mark your second, third and fourth choice candidates and so on—your backup choices—on that same ballot. That creates an instant runoff. We’re not asking voters to come back 45 days later for a runoff election. Voters get to decide who their backup choices are in that one ranked election.

So this system only works when there are multiple candidates for one office in a nonpartisan election, right?

That’s right. Ranked choice voting ballots will only be triggered if there are more than two candidates in a race.

I’ve read that supporters of this form of voting say it encourages democracy to flourish. How so?

I think that there’s many ways to talk about that. The most obvious way is that it does away with the split vote. Let’s say that there are three candidates for mayor. There are going to be a few candidates who have similar platforms. The vote is going to be split among those three. There will be no clear majority, no single candidate will reach 50 percent.

Does ranked choice voting take place if one candidate does receive a majority of the votes?

No. Voters can rank as many or as few of the candidates as they desire. But as soon as the polls close, only the number one votes are considered. If one of the candidates receives 50 percent or more of the vote, then the election is over.

But in a case where the vote was split?

Then ranked choice voting comes into play.

Okay, then what happens?

In those cases, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated and then the voters who chose THAT candidate as their favorite have their next choice count as their vote. If a voter chooses only one candidate and that candidate is eliminated, then basically that voter is saying they aren’t interested in the other candidates or a runoff election.

In addition to making the election process more efficient and definitive by ending the need for a second round of elections, I’ve heard that this plan has economic advantages too. What are they?

That’s correct. As a new state law, the Local Election Act, cities are being asked to consolidate local elections. Some municipalities have had nine or 10 local elections. Voters never knew when elections were coming up, what elections were under way, et cetera. The state legislature mandated single elections so that the voters would only have to show up one time to speak their voice The state is committed to paying for those consolidated local elections.

Did cities used to have to pay for those nonpartisan local elections?

In the past, yes. But not with ranked choice, not with consolidated local elections. Now, the state won’t pay for local runoff elections. If the city decides to have two separate elections, the state won’t support that, financially.

I’ve heard that this new method will also encourage a larger turnout.

Yes. We’ve seen, in the cities that have already adopted ranked choice voting, that candidates have to reach out to voters beyond their base of support. In most cases [with several candidates], it’s mathematically impossible to win with just first choice votes. Because of that, candidates stretch well beyond their base, seeking more constituents. They knock on more doors. As a result, voters are engaged by more and different candidates and therefore become more knowledgeable about the entire process. Voting by this method is intrinsically more exciting, but most importantly, it represents a truly vibrant and involved democracy.

Has an option for ranked choice been introduced here in our City Council?

The proposed ordinance was introduced by Councilor Benton and is cosponsored by Councilors Davis and Winter.

Do you expect that there will be action on this plan by the time of November’s municipal election?

It has to to go through the finance committee, by Monday, May 13. If it advances, it will be up for a vote before the entire council on June 3. The state needs to know if Albuquerque is going to adopt ranked choice voting by June 30. That’s our timeline.