SANTA FE, N.M. — As the Santa Fe City Council prepares to consider for a second time whether to implement ranked-choice voting (RCV) for next year’s municipal elections, there’s also debate around the country over whether the voting system, also called “instant runoff,” works as advertised.
Since 2008, when Santa Fe voters overwhelmingly approved a city charter amendment to implement RCV in municipal elections for mayor, city council seats and municipal judge, several jurisdictions across the U.S. – including Aspen, Colo., Burlington, Vt., and Pierce County in Washington state – have done away with RCV and others have decided not to adopt it.
There has also been more research on the voting method, some of which suggests RCV isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“In particular,” says one study of the 2013 city election in Minneapolis conducted by political scientists at the University of Minnesota, “our statistical analysis of voting results reveals a clear pattern: voters who were more affluent and white turned out at a higher rate, completed their ballots more accurately, and were more likely to use all three opportunities to rank their most preferred candidates compared to voters living in low-income neighborhoods and in communities of color.”
The “three opportunities” references Minneapolis’ choice to allow voters to rank only their top three choices, even if there are more candidates in a race. Other jurisdictions allow for ranking all candidates running for an office, no matter how many. The Santa Fe City Council, nine years after the voters approved ranked choice, still hasn’t decided which way to go on this issue.
The Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California Berkeley came up with similar findings while examining how things have worked out in San Francisco, which has used RCV since 2007.
It identified more problems with spoiled ballots filled out in districts with higher populations of African American voters. “And this often occurs where more Latino, elderly, foreign-born, and less wealthy folks live,” says an article published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy in 2015.
But proponents of ranked-choice voting see it differently.
Maria Perez, state director for FairVote, a non-partisan group that advocates for the RCV method, says that ranked choice actually works to create more equitable representation in government for people of color by generating a better turnout among minorities and encouraging more of them to run for office.
“I think that as more jurisdictions adopt it, and the kinks get worked out, people get used to it,” she said when asked about some of the issues with spoiled ballots that have taken place in jurisdictions that have adopted RCV.
She pointed to another independent study examining how RCV was working out in Minneapolis, this one performed by Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, that found 97 percent of voters of color found using a ranked-choice voting ballot to be “simple.”
Nonetheless, Perez emphasized the need for voter education, which she said her group is willing to help provide.
“The voter education piece is something that needs to be put in place,” she said, adding that there is still plenty of time for that, with the municipal election still seven months away.
The biggest obstacle to a ranked-choice election in Santa Fe in 2018, she says, is the question of whether the software capable of counting ranked votes will be ready on time. But Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver says she expects it will. Dominion Voting Systems, which is developing the software and holds the contract with the state, says it will receive testing lab results by Aug. 20. The company will meet with the Secretary of State’s office Aug. 25, at which time Dominion will demonstrate its product. If all goes as planned, the software could receive certification a month later after a required 30-day public comment period.
RCV was not implemented in Santa Fe soon after the 2008 vote to adopt it because of a provision in the wording of the ballot measure that said the new voting system would go into effect “when equipment and software for tabulating votes and allowing corrections of incorrectly marked, in-person ballots are available at a reasonable cost.”
That time now appears imminent – software has been developed, but has yet to be certified and the cost has come way down, to $39,000. But the City Council last month, still concerned over the availability of the software in time for the March 2018 election and the need for voter education on RCV, put off the implementation for another two years.
Still, hope among RCV supporters for implementing the system in next March’s election – during which positions for mayor and four city council seats are up for grabs – is not dead yet.
City Councilor Joseph Maestas announced last week that he plans to make a rescission motion at next Wednesday’s council meeting to overturn last month’s 4-3 vote, which took place with two councilors absent.
“For something as important as RCV that’s called for in the city charter – and it’s been nearly 10 years since voters approved it as an amendment – I felt it was absolutely essential for all members of the governing body to be present,” he said in an interview last week.
RCV comes into play when there are more than two candidates in a race. Voters are asked to rank their candidate choices in order of preference. If after an initial vote tally, no one gets more than 50 percent, the person with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second choices of those who voted for that candidate are counted as votes for the remaining candidates. Counts continue through other rounds, if necessary, until a final candidate gets a winning amount.
The method is designed, in part, to prevent fringe candidates from becoming “spoilers” by tilting the race among leading candidates and allowing voters to choose their real favorites instead of “the lesser of two evils.” It is also hailed as a deterrent to negative campaigning because engaging in such tactics candidates would run the risk of alienating supporters of rivals whose second-place or third-place votes could help determine the eventual winner.
Another argument in favor of RCV is that it ultimately results in the winner receiving a “true majority” of the vote. In describing the process, the 2008 Santa Fe charter amendment states that the process for eliminating candidates “shall be repeated until a candidate receives a majority of the votes for that office.” But that hasn’t happened in some cases around the country.
A 2015 study authored by professors at the University of North Carolina and Ohio State University concluded that RCV “frequently does not produce a winner who wins the majority rather than plurality of all votes cast, one of the alleged advantages of this voting that proponents sometimes highlight.”
In a mayoral race in Burlington, Vt., which has since done away with RCV, the winner of a crowded mayoral race came up about 1,000 votes short of a true majority of the nearly 18,000 valid first-place ballots after 15 rounds.
In the wake of that election, the Vermont Legislative Research Shop at the University of Vermont observed that researchers Peter Fishburn and Steven Brams identified four paradoxes that can result from ranked voting: the “No-Show Paradox,” the “Thwarted Majorities Paradox,” the “Multiple-Districts Paradox” and the “More-Is-Less Paradox.”
Sixty-four percent of Burlington voters supported implementing RCV in 2005. But five years later, 52 percent voted to repeal it.
In Aspen, RCV was in effect only for the 2009 election. Though voter turnout was a record high and less than 1 percent of all votes cast were deemed to have been filled out incorrectly, voters rejected an advisory question to keep RCV in place the following year and approved a binding amendment to return to the old method a year after that.
Other cities have considered implementing RCV, but decided not to adopt it.
In San Jose, Calif., the League of Women Voters of San Jose/Santa Clara conducted a study in 2011 to determine whether to support it. The consensus of its membership was not to support a change from the current system. In citing its reasons for not supporting it, the group listed the possibility of a candidate winning with plurality of the vote rather than a majority under rules that allowed for only three candidates to be ranked, that the majority voting system was preferred by its membership, and that ballots and the system could be “too confusing.”
Santa Fe has already adopted RCV; it just hasn’t implemented it. As Mayor Javier Gonzales pointed out during discussion of the issue at the City Council meeting last month, the city could be opening itself up to a lawsuit if it doesn’t follow through with what voters mandated nearly 10 years ago.
Perez of FairVote says she could see that happening, too.
“I think it does open the city up to litigation if they choose to preemptively not comply with a charter mandate,” she said. “The software is ready. The Secretary of State has expressed confidence that it will be ready. The voters have spoken. It is the law and we need to follow it.”