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Council approves RCV details for March election

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Final details regarding how ranked-choice voting will work in Santa Fe’s 2018 municipal election were hammered out late Wednesday, with the mayor and City Council adopting crucial definitions and what one councilor called the nation’s most “liberal” rules for handling improperly marked ballots.

Only about a dozen jurisdictions in the country use RCV. The March 6 election in Santa Fe, in which voters will select a new mayor and four city councilors, will be the first RCV election in New Mexico.

“I’m tired, but I feel really good about what we’ve done,” said City Councilor Joseph Maestas, whose name will be on the ballot as a candidate for mayor, near the end of a more than five-hour special meeting that followed a 90-minute study session on the same issue.

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The council decision to adopt an ordinance establishing an RCV method for electing candidates was unanimous. The ordinance gives voters unlimited opportunities to correct ballots with errors recognized by election machine software. Maestas said that makes Santa Fe’s rules the most liberal – in terms of allowing voters to make corrections – in the country.

Because RCV will be used for the first time – provided the state Supreme Court doesn’t rule that RCV is unconstitutional, an issue that’s pending after the City Council voted earlier this month to challenge a lower court’s ruling – councilors said they wanted to give voters every opportunity to get their ballot right.

While Santa Feans voted in 2008 to adopt the RCV method, the 2018 election is the first opportunity to actually use it because the software capable of tabulating the votes wasn’t certified by the Secretary of State’s Office until September.

RCV, also called “instant runoff,” applies in election contests where there are more than two candidates. Voters are asked to rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-ranked votes during an initial count, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the second-choice votes of the last-place candidate are distributed to the others. The process is repeated until one candidate gets a majority.

The council also voted to adopt a new definition for what constitutes a “majority” in RCV voting.

The city attorney’s office has taken the stance that a “majority of votes cast,” as stated in the 2008 city charter amendment, means the majority of all votes in the election, those counted in the first round. But there have been cases in RCV elections in other cities where the winner has less than 50 percent plus one of all the votes because some voters failed to rank candidates beyond a first choice or otherwise didn’t rank all the candidates.

A three-page opinion from Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver presented to the council on Wednesday interpreted the city charter language to mean the “majority of votes cast in the round of voting.”

The council ultimately settled on a definition that a winning majority consists of a majority of votes among “continuing candidates,” or those still in the running after each vote-counting round, which essentially conforms with the Secretary of State’s advice instead of the interpretation of the city attorney’s office.

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Trial run with animals

During the study session prior to the special meeting, councilors heard a presentation by Matt Ross, the city’s public information officer, on a public education campaign the city is conducting to get voters familiar with RCV. This discussion had a somewhat lighter tone – the campaign will use cute animal figures as mock candidates.

As reported by the Journal last week, the city is spending $150,000 on the campaign to educate voters.

The campaign formally launched Thursday with a website, www.votedifferentsantafe.com, providing basic information about RCV, with more to be added after the Christmas holiday.

The city signed a $49,999 contract with PK Public Relations to help create the website. It’s designed to allow people to practice voting using the RCV method by casting ballots for the animal candidates.

“We want it to be engaging and people can relate to animals,” Lynn Komer of PK Public Relations said in an interview Thursday. “We really want it to mirror the actual election in a way that’s fun and inclusive for everyone.”

The candidates in the mock election are Betty Bear, Felix Fox, Lucinda Lizard, Roberto Rabbit and Diego Deer. Each animal will run on its own platform. For instance, Betty Bear will advocate for daily siestas, Lucinda Lizard will be a solar energy proponent and Felix Fox will push for more affordable hen houses.

“We really feel the best way to engage people is through the storytelling of the candidates in a way that’s fun so people won’t feel intimidated by it,” said Komer.

Election contractor absent

What turned out to be a long night – Mayor Javier Gonzales didn’t adjourn the night meeting until 10:16 p.m. – could have been made shorter had a representative of Dominion Voting Systems been present. Discussion repeatedly bogged down because councilors weren’t clear on what the vote-counting software created by Dominion, which holds the contract for voting systems in New Mexico, was capable of doing in RCV elections.

For instance, no one present could say whether Dominion could accommodate the council’s preferred choice of a horizontally aligned RCV ballot, with candidates names in a column on the left and columns to the right where voters would fill in ovals to select a first choice, second choice and so on.

“So why are we even being provided with options?” asked Councilor Carmichael Dominguez.

City Manager Brian Snyder said he and other city officials, as well as representatives from the Secretary of State’s Office, had met with Dominion on Monday and were told then that the company would have someone present to answer questions at Wednesday’s meeting. But Snyder said he received word Tuesday afternoon that no Dominion representative would be able to attend due to a “conflict.”

“They should be here. This is too important of a vote tonight,” said Ron Trujillo, another councilor running for mayor.

Noting that Dominion had returned a signed contract with the city earlier in the day – the terms including fees to be paid for training – Trujillo said Dominion was doing a “disservice to the community” and apparently didn’t feel “it was important enough” for them to attend. Peter Ives, the third councilor in the five-candidate race for mayor, lamented that the city’s “hands are a bit tied” without more answers.

The contract calls for the city to pay Dominion $30,650 for equipment rental, licensing, training, testing and election day support.

The council ultimately voted for a horizontally aligned ballot contingent on Dominion’s ability to produce it.

A spokeswoman for Dominion said Thursday that Dominion never promised officials that someone would attend Wednesday’s meeting. “There were not enough people, not enough time and too much to do at the end of the year” to have someone present, said Kay Stimson, vice president of government affairs for Dominion.

She said Dominion representatives did talk to city officials on Thursday. “We tried at every turn to do what we were obligated to do,” she said.

At the close of Wednesday night’s meeting, Mayor Gonzales said Dominion would play a critical role in assuring that the city’s first crack at conducting an RCV election would come off without a hitch. “With a signed contract, we won’t have to ask where Dominion is any longer,” he said.

Mock voting with the animal candidates will take place during yet-to-be-scheduled public forums. Results will be announced Jan. 20.

Real-life voting for the 2018 municipal election begins with absentee voting on Jan. 30. Early voting begins Feb. 17. Election day is March 6.

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