Santa Fe city government late Wednesday released a draft ordinance to establish processes for ranked-choice voting, something a district court judge last week ordered the city to put in place for the municipal election on March 6.
While about a dozen cities across the country hold elections using the ranked-choice voting (RCV) method, Santa Fe would be the first jurisdiction in New Mexico to do so.
The City Council is expected to adopt a final version of the ordinance after a public hearing at a special meeting on Dec. 20.
While the draft ordinance answers some of questions about how the election will be conducted, provided the city’s appeal of Judge David Thomson’s ruling is denied by the state Supreme Court, there’s still much to be worked out.
“Many of those unanswered questions are about how the voting software and machines will work,” Karen Heldmeyer, a former city councilor, wrote in an email to the council, the city clerk and city attorney on Thursday.
“The answers to those questions may not be appropriate for the ordinance, but they do need to be answered. Additionally, there are parts of the ordinance that need additional work,” wrote Heldmeyer, who was in office when the council proposed a city charter amendment mandating RCV, which voters approved in 2008.
The draft ordinance provides definitions for terms that apply to RCV and not elections decided by plurality, as Santa Fe’s elections worked in the past.
But before getting into definitions, voters first must understand how RCV is designed to work:
Voters are asked to rank their choices in order of preference for elections involving three or more candidates. When the polls close on the day of the election, ballots are counted in “rounds.” In the first round, if no candidate achieves a majority (50 percent plus one) of the vote, the candidate receiving the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. In the second round, the second choices of voters whose first choice was eliminated are counted for the remaining candidates. The process is repeated round by round until one candidate receives a majority (although what, exactly, constitutes a majority is one of RCV’s thorny questions).
Although city voters approved RCV in 2008, it was never implemented before for reasons that include delays in development of appropriate vote-counting software to match state-certified equipment. Judge Thomson’s new mandate to implement RCV in March came after RCV supporters took the matter to court.
Heldmeyer said in an interview that many of the issues surrounding RCV that she’s raised to city officials came from people she’s talked to at events put on by Journey Santa Fe, which describes itself as a group of “progressive-minded individuals who explore local and regional issues that influence our daily lives,” and others she has talked to.
“Because this is a new thing, people are thinking up all kinds of variations of how they might vote,” she said, adding that people are now kicking around how the system could possibly be “gamed” to benefit a candidate.
“Are they better off ranking someone they don’t necessarily like second or third or leave them off the ballot altogether? It’s a new ballgame and people are trying to figure it out.”
The draft ordinance defines an “overvote” as an occurrence when a voter assigns more than one candidate the same rank. “If a voter gives the same ranking to more than one candidate, the voter’s ranking shall be counted in order of preference, stopping at the point where the ballot contains the same ranking for more than one candidate,” it reads.
In her email, Heldemeyer noted that the city charter specifies that anyone voting in person must be given the opportunity to correct such an error,” adding, “This should be specified in the ordinance.”
She also said there would be no way to correct a ballot from absentee and mail-in voters.
During a court hearing before Judge Thomson last week, Steven Bennett, regional sales manager for Dominion Voting Systems, which contracts with the Secretary of State’s Office to provide voting systems to counties statewide, said the system would provide an alert at an RCV polling place if a voter made an error.
This would allow for what he called “second-chance” voting, where a voter could correct his or her ballot.
Heldmeyer also noted that the draft ordinance calls for votes to be counted “until one candidate receives a majority of votes.” But in RCV elections elsewhere, reaching majority support for one candidate among all ballots cast hasn’t always happened, for reasons that include the fact some voters don’t rank any candidate other than their first choice.
Heldmeyer says the Santa Fe ordinance’s definitions for “majority of votes” and “continuing ballot” – a ballot that counts towards a “continuing candidate,” or one that has not been eliminated – should be clarified. Then there are questions about the voting machines and software.
“What EXACTLY is going to happen if an overvote occurs?” she asked. And, “What EXACTLY is going to happen if an undervote occurs?” An undervote is when a voter doesn’t rank any candidate in a particular race.
Will voters “be allowed to skip a race if they want, or will the software keep rejecting their ballot?” Also, “Will voters be forced to vote in one race to have their vote count in another?”
Heldmeyer pointed out that to date RCV has never been tested in New Mexico and said the questions she’s raising must be clarified before any training can begin.
While City Clerk Yolanda Vigil runs the municipal election, Santa Fe County is the custodian of the voting machines.
County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said Thursday that at last check nearly all of the 148 voting machines her office is in charge of have been loaded with the appropriate Democracy Suite 5.4 software being provided by Dominion.
But none of them has had the software module that makes them capable of conducting an RCV election activated, and those modules won’t be activated until Vigil makes that request. That may not happen until the Supreme Court takes up the city’s appeal of Judge Thomson’s ruling that RCV is indeed a “runoff election” as provided for in the New Mexico Constitution. Or it may not happen until after the Dec. 20 meeting when the City Council is slated to pass its RCV ordinance.
According to testimony during Thomson’s deliberations from Dominion’s Bennett and state election officials, there’s still plenty of time to do what needs to be done before March 6. Bennett said it takes only three or four weeks to prepare for an election from start to finish, including the time it takes to design a ballot and train personnel. He said poll workers and city election officials require only about three or four days of training.
But what about training voters?
When asked by Thomson during a hearing last week whether she felt there was sufficient time to educate voters on RCV, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said, “Sufficient time? Yes. Would it always be better to have more time available? Yes.”
Moments after Judge Thomson ordered the city to conduct the 2018 municipal election using RCV, Mayor Javier Gonzales used Twitter to announce that he would introduce an emergency resolution to allocate $300,000 for public education on the election process and implementation “to make sure we get this right.”