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Hearing on Santa Fe ranked-choice voting set for Nov. 21

SANTA FE – A new judge has been assigned to a case that will determine whether ranked-choice voting will be implemented during the city of Santa Fe’s municipal election on March 6, part of a set of confusing developments in the litigation.

The bottom line is that the city faces a “show cause” order — either implement ranked choice voting in March, or “show cause” on why it should not do so at a hearing later this month. The hearing is in effect an opportunity for both sides to present arguments in a case where a decision must come quickly as the election approaches.

On Thursday, District Judge David K. Thomson took over the case, after the city executed its right to excuse a judge. The notice of assignment states Thomson’s assignment was effective Monday, after the city’s excusal of Judge Gregory S. Shaffer, who was just sworn in last week following his appointment to the bench by Gov. Susana Martinez.

Shaffer had issued a show cause order dated Tuesday — the day after court documents say Thomson was assigned to the case — that set a hearing for Nov. 17. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Assistant City Attorney Zach Shandler said Thursday afternoon.  But later in the day, Thomson issued an alternative writ that set a new date for the hearing. It’s now scheduled for 8:15 a.m. on Nov. 21.

Ranked choice voting, also called “instant runoff,” would apply in city elections where there were more than two candidates. Voters would be asked to rank the candidates in order of preference. If after the first count no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-ranked votes in an initial count, the last place candidate is eliminated and the second choices of those who voted for the last-place candidate are counted as votes for the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until a winner is determined.

In 2008, Santa Fe voters overwhelmingly approved changes to the city’s charter that called for ranked choice voting, but not until the vote-counting software was available and affordable. That time apparently has come, but too late in the game for the majority of city councilors who voted in July to delay implementation of ranked choice voting until 2020.

Several individuals, including Maria Perez of FairVote New Mexico — a nonpartisan group that advocates for electoral reforms — filed an emergency petition in district court on Sept. 29 to compel the city to implement ranked choice voting for the 2018 municipal election. The petition came about a week after the state Supreme Court had declined to hear the case.

Perez said she’s hoping the case will be resolved soon and blamed the city for dragging it out. “This case has been languishing for some time. Obviously, this is a delay tactic,” she said of the city’s excusal of Shaffer. “We’re getting down to the wire, and I think the city has been disingenuously running the clock. But there’s still time to do this.”

Shandler denied the city was slow playing the court case. “The reason for all of this is the software company missed deadlines. All the delays come from that. That’s what got the ball rolling late,” he said.

City councilors cited deadlines missed by Dominion Voting Systems, the company that manufactures the software used in voting machines to tabulate ranked choice votes, as one reason they weren’t confident the new voting system could be implemented for the March election when they voted in July to delay implementing the system. There were other concerns, including lack of clarity regarding how incorrectly marked, or “spoiled” ballots would be handled and a tight time frame to educate voters about a change.

The Secretary of State’s Office eventually certified the software Sept. 27, about two months after the City Council vote.

While names on nominating petitions still need to be certified, six potential mayoral candidates turned in petitions with enough signatures to qualify them to get their names on the ballot for the March 6 election. Ranked choice voting could also potentially come into play in races for two City Council seats, where three people turned in petitions in both districts 2 and 4.

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