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Judge makes right call on ranked-choice voting

SANTA FE, N.M. — District Judge David Thomson made the right call on Wednesday when he ordered Santa Fe to proceed with ranked-choice voting for the March 6 municipal election.

Nearly a decade ago, in 2008, the City Council placed on the ballot a city charter amendment to switch to ranked-choice voting, also known as “instant run-off.” The voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment, which included a proviso that the change would take place when appropriate vote-counting software was available at a reasonable price.

Explanations for the long delay in implementation mostly focus on finding ranked-choice technology that matched up with statewide election software.

But maybe the real reason it’s taken so long to get to this point is that the impetus for ranked-choice voting, or RCV, diminished with the shrinking profile of the Green Party in New Mexico.

Before the city charter vote on RCV, the Greens had been slammed as “spoilers” in a couple of major races (not in city elections) that were won by Republicans. The theory was that third-place Green candidates pulled from the Democratic base and handed the races to the GOP.

With RCV, first- and second-place votes for Democratic and Green candidates were expected to help progressives get a majority.

With the Greens less of a factor over the past several years, the push for RCV went down, as well.

If someone at City Hall had really gotten behind RCV and pushed for certification of software to accommodate it – several other cities around the country have been using RCV in the meantime, including a few who decided they didn’t like it and returned to traditional voting systems – it’s possible ranked-choice could have been place in Santa Fe years ago.

City government established a committee to work out the details of a charter change that increased the salary of the mayor, but the same emphasis was never accorded RCV. Maybe that’s because most city councilors really weren’t too fond of making the election change despite the voters’ approval.

Now, with Judge Thomson’s ruling, city government faces a time crunch to finalize many details of RCV in time for the March election.

The council could have been working on this for months, but decided in July that the time wasn’t right, mainly because the RCV software’s certification was still pending.

Mayor Javier Gonzales suggested the right course then – he proposed endorsing RCV, as the voters did in 2008, and beginning the process of making decisions on how to implement RCV for 2018. If the software wasn’t certified by the Secretary of State’s Office in time, then Santa Fe could just proceed with elections as in the past.

As it turns out, the software was certified in late September. This week, acting on a petition from RCV supporters, Judge Thomson decided that the software was therefore “available” as envisioned in the 2008 amendment.

The court fight included the bizarre development of the city attorney’s office contending that RCV was unconstitutional. It was, after all, the Santa Fe City Council that put RCV before voters in 2008. For the city attorney to call RCV unconstitutional now is like the city punching itself in the face.

RCV will be a brave new world. There are a lot of issues – while RCV is supposed to guarantee that an election winner gets majority support, that won’t necessarily happen if some voters list only a first-choice candidate instead of ranking other candidates second or third and so on.

Apparently, getting results as various counting rounds continue if no one gets a majority of first-choice votes in an initial tally can sometimes take days. (See an RCV primer, from Minnesota, on the facing page in today’s Journal North.)

It will be interesting to see which mayor and council candidates seem to benefit from ranked-choice and which ones are hurt.

In any case, the voters approved RCV nearly a decade ago and now a judge has ordered the city to make it happen.

Let’s get ready to rumble.