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Getting the word out about RCV

SANTA FE, N.M. — Don’t be intimidated, voters. Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is nothing to be afraid of.

That’s the message the city wants to communicate in advance of the 2018 municipal election, which – barring a reversal by the state Supreme Court of a district court judge’s order – will be the first municipal election in state history to be decided by the ranked-choice method of voting.

“Once people learn about the system, it’s not as intimidating as it sounds,” said Matt Ross, the city’s public information officer, who will be leading the city’s effort to education voters about RCV, sometimes called “instant runoff.”

RCV comes into play only when there are more than two candidates in a race. Voters are asked to rank their candidate choices in order of preference. If after an initial vote tally, no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second choices of those who voted for the last-place candidate are counted as votes for the remaining candidates. If the top vote-getter still doesn’t have a majority, the process is repeated until someone tops 50 percent of votes counted.

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Proponents say RCV guarantees the winner has support from most voters, serves to prevent underdog candidates from being “spoilers,” keeps voters from having to choose between “the lesser of two evils” and discourages negative campaigning.

But there’s much public confusion over RCV, some of it self-inflicted as a divided City Council is appealing a judge’s order to implement ranked-choice for the 2018 election based on constitutional and other grounds.

Yet it was the City Council that placed a proposal to switch to RCV on the ballot for the 2008 municipal election, where it was approved by the electorate by a wide margin. It hasn’t been used in city elections since then because the software to tabulate votes wasn’t certified by the Secretary of State’s office until two months ago.

Further complicating the matter, the City Council on Wednesday approved publishing notice of a public hearing on Jan. 10 to consider what the city attorney called a “contingency plan” that would require a separate, old-fashioned, two-candidate runoff election should no candidate receive a majority of RCV votes.

In some cases in other cities where RCV has been used, no candidate ends up with a majority of all votes cast. That can happen when some voters don’t rank any candidate besides their first choice, meaning there aren’t second-choice or lower votes to distribute to other candidates if their first choice loses out. The “majority” in this case is of all votes counted in the last round.

Putting all the legal and procedural machinations aside, the city is focusing on getting word out to the public about the new voting method and is allocating $150,000 for public outreach. As City Councilor Ron Trujillo said during Wednesday’s meeting, the city doesn’t want voters to say, “we’re not going to do this (vote), it’s too hard.”

Trujillo is one of three city councilors – Peter Ives and Joseph Maestas are the others – whose name will be on the ballot for the mayoral election. Also running for mayor are former city employee and current school board member Kate Noble, and entrepreneur Alan Webber, who ran in the Democratic primary for governor in 2014.

Not only would the mayoral race be decided by RCV, but so would city council races in districts 2 and 4, each with three candidates seeking those seats.

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The 2018 election will likely be the most expensive in city history. In addition to the $150,000 put toward the public education campaign, City Clerk Yolanda Vigil said during Wednesday’s meeting that her office expects to spend $200,000 on the election. The cost of past municipal elections has approached $100,000, not counting money given to candidates under the city’s public campaign finance program.

Campaign veteran

Ross, who will be heading up the public education outreach campaign for the city, said it’s not too different from the work he did prior to becoming public information officer after Gonzales was elected mayor in 2014. A founding partner of Albuquerque-based political consulting firm Bosque Strategies, he worked on Gonzales’ 2014 mayoral campaign, as well as his successful run as state Democratic Party chairman in 2010. He has also been part of campaigns for former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, New Mexico Congressman Martin Heinrich and former state Land Commissioner Ray Powell.

He said those experiences translate well to his new task. But instead of advocating for a specific candidate, he’ll promote a public outreach campaign, he said. “I’ll be calling on a lot of skills and techniques for public outreach I’ve used in the past. Those skills will come in handy, for sure,” he said.

Some of that will involve media buys for print and radio advertising, developing campaign literature and informational videos, creating a website dedicated exclusively to the city’s voter education efforts and staging public forums – “a whole range of outreach.”

The website is expected to be up by the end of the calendar year, with links prominently positioned on the city website. It won’t go up until some time after a special meeting of the City Council on Dec. 20, when the governing body will finalize rules for an RCV election.

“We’ll use every tool available and work as closely as we can with community organizations to get the word out,” he said.

He said the city will be in touch with groups like FairVote New Mexico, which advocates for RCV and has been the city’s opponent in the court fight over implementing RCV in 2018, and Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan lobbying group that advocates for open and transparent government, which seems willing to assist with the outreach. The city will coordinate closely with those groups and others “so everyone is singing the same tune,” he said.

The outreach will also include several public meetings to be held at various locations, where people will have a chance to “practice voting” using the RCV method. There may even be tables set up at public libraries, community centers and in front of grocery stores, he said. “We want to meet people where they are,” Ross said.

Ross acknowledged a tight time frame. While the public education campaign will continue right up to the March 6 election, early voting begins Jan. 30.

But Ross said the city is going to do everything it can to get voters to feel comfortable, and not intimidated, about voting in a RCV election. “Our goal is to make sure every citizen knows when to vote, where to vote and how to vote during this election,” he said.

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