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Toulouse Oliver: Santa Fe has time to implement ranked-choice voting

SANTA FE — New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver testified Tuesday that there’s still time for Santa Fe to implement ranked-choice voting for the municipal election next March, but whether city government will be ordered to do so won’t be known until today.

District Court Judge David Thomson said from the bench that he’d promised both sides in the case that he’d make a decision on Tuesday, but he changed his mind after hearing about six hours worth of testimony from three witnesses and arguments from attorneys.

At issue is whether the software to implement ranked-choice voting is truly “available” and whether the method of voting, also known as “instant runoff,” is constitutional.

“I don’t think it would benefit anybody to give you my ruling today,” without reviewing testimony, looking at cases cited in their arguments and reviewing two state statutes relevant to the case, Thomson said late in the day. He said he will announce a decision at an 8:30 a.m. hearing.

Santa Fe voters in 2008 overwhelmingly approved a city charter amendment to implement ranked-choice voting, but not until it software became available at a reasonable price. Nearly 10 years later, the software was certified for use by the Secretary of State — who oversees elections in New Mexico — in September and the process to install the system in voting machines is due to begin by next week. The city’s cost has been estimated at roughly $40,000.

But the certification of the software didn’t come until two months after the City Council voted 6-3 to put off implementing the method for another two years, due to concerns over whether the software would actually be ready for the March 6 election and voters could be quickly educated about the change.

In response to the council’s decision, a small group of voters, including Maria Perez of FairVote New Mexico, a nonpartisan group that advocates for ranked-choice voting, filed a lawsuit against the city. After denying a motion by the city to dismiss the case last week, Judge Thomson scheduled Tuesday’s hearing to hear arguments on other issues.


District Judge David Thomson holds up a sample ballot during a hearing on whether he should order that ranked-choice voting be used for Santa Fe\’s municipal election in March. (Eddie Moore/ Albuquerque Journal)

When called to the stand, Toulouse Oliver testified that Dominion Election Systems, the company that provides the ranked-choice vote-counting software, had submitted the software in a timely manner. Asked how long it would take to configure a voting system to accommodate ranked-choice voting method, she said only about a day. And was there enough time for the city to design a ballot to meet statutory obligations and get the ballot to the printer? “They have plenty of time,” she said.

On cross examination from Assistant City Attorney Zach Shandler, Toulouse Oliver acknowledged that at one point she told Dominion it “needed to hurry up and get on the ball.”

Shandler’s point was that delays by Dominion factored into the City Council’s decision not to implement ranked-choice for 2018. Shandler also cited a September 2015 email from Dominion that stated the software would be ready in “early 2016,” but the company still hadn’t applied to certify the software when the City Council made it’s decision in July of this year.

Ranked-choice voting is used in other American cities, like San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif. and Minneapolis, but Santa Fe would be the first in New Mexico to use the system.

The voting method asks voters to rank candidates in their order of preference in elections when there are more than three candidates. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second choices for those people who voted for that candidate is then applied to the remaining candidates. The process is completed until a winner is determined.

The method would apply to three races in the city’s next election on March 6, where five candidates are running for mayor and there are three hopefuls in races for council seats in districts 2 and 4.