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Fight over ranked-choice voting hits state Supreme Court

SANTA FE – The state Supreme Court has been asked to order the Santa Fe mayor and City Council to implement ranked choice voting in March’s municipal elections — a change that was approved overwhelmingly at the ballot box nearly a decade ago.

In a petition to the high court filed Wednesday, the leader of FairVote New Mexico and three others say the conditions called for in a voter-approved 2008 city charter amendment have been met, with a company now offering suitable vote-counting software at the mandated “reasonable price.”

“We’ve been waiting for 10 years already almost, the time to implement RCV is here,” said Maria Perez of FairVote at a press conference outside City Hall Wednesday evening.

Perez said the council’s vote in July to not implement ranked choice voting until at least 2020 is an “insult to Santa Fe voters.”

Councilors who voted against using ranked choice next year said there wasn’t enough time to implement RCV and educate voters about the change. Contractor Dominion Inc., offering software for $39,000, still needs certification from the New Mexico Secretary of State. That office has said it should complete certification by late September.

“Although it’s arguable whether the prerequisites to give effect to the RCV Amendment were met in the past, they are in place now,” the Supreme Court petition states.

Ranked-choice voting, also called “instant runoff,” would be utilized when a race includes more than two candidates. Voters rank their choices among candidates by order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-ranked votes in an initial tabulation, the last-place candidate is dropped and the second choices of those who voted for the last-place candidate are counted as votes for the remaining candidates. That process continues until one of the contenders receives a majority.

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Attorney Teresa Leger de Fernandez, who filed the Supreme Court petition, said kinds of voting software nationwide are always pending certification prior to local and state elections, but that doesn’t keep candidates from campaigning or prevent other election preparations. Perez also said the city would only need about 30-60 days to educate the voters.

The petition says RCV capabilities would be free and available for Santa Fe in 2018 as part of a statewide voting system. But the city still would have to directly pay Dominion Voting for server use, trainings and on-site support, according to Secretary of State Office spokesperson Joey Keefe.

Councilor Peter Ives, who voted in July to halt implementation for 2018, said there were too many lingering questions about the software’s certification process and its abilities as well as the amount of time the city would have to educate citizens. He said in addition uncertainty on what the technology was being tested for and if the Secretary of State’s office was vetting the technology under the most updated guidelines, the software company had already missed a June 1 deadline to get approval for next year’s election.

He also mentioned the software’s limitation of having 10 candidates on the ballot, which left him with questions of what would happen if the upcoming mayoral race had more candidates than that. This wouldn’t be “inconceivable” to him considering the mayor will now be a full-time position with a six-figure salary.

The worst thing that could happen would be for an election’s integrity to be called into question, Ives said, and he does not feel differently about his July vote following the citizens’ Supreme Court filing. “I made [the decision] for reasonable and correct reasons…The fact that someone disagrees with me, I dare to say that happens every day,” he said.

Former City Councilor Karen Heldmeyer, who helped draft the language in the 2008 vote that said the city would wait for “when equipment and software for tabulating the votes and allowing correction of incorrectly marked, in-person ballets are available at a reasonable price,” said the another main issue with implementing anything right now is that the city hasn’t made any for what ranked-choice in Santa Fe would look like.

This questions include how many candidates voters can rank — in some systems, voters rank their top three, while others call for ranking all candidates, no matter how many — as well as what would happen in an event of a tie. Though she says she’s “agnostic” on RCV, Heldmeyer said it’s important that implementation is done correctly. “[RCV] sounds simple until you get down into the weeds, and then it’s more complicated,” she said

Leger de Hernandez said the petitioners have requested the Supreme Court respond to their case by Sept. 30.

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