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High court gets arguments from Santa Fe RCV supporters

SANTA FE – The stage may be set for the New Mexico Supreme Court to decide definitively if Santa Fe must use ranked-choice voting in the March 6 municipal elections.

On Monday, supporters of ranked-choice voting, or RCV, filed their response to city government’s emergency appeal of District Court Judge David Thomson’s November order that Santa Fe has to implement the election system also known as “instant runoff,” which city voters approved as an amendment to the city charter in 2008.

The filing by four RCV supportes begins, “This case strikes at the heart of our democratic system: shall the will of the people be honored?”

The City Council voted 5-4 last month to appeal Thomson’s order. The city’s emergency petition maintained that ranked-choice voting violates the New Mexico Constitution because it is not a “runoff” as allowed under a constitutional amendment, although it was the City Council itself that proposed RCV in 2008. “If the legislature wanted to propose a constitutional amendment authorizing ‘ranked choice voting’ or ‘instant runoff voting,’ the legislature could have done so, but it did not do so,” the city now argues.

Last summer, the City Council majority decided against using RCV in 2018, because software to count RCV votes hadn’t been certified. The software was okayed by the Secretary of State’s Office in late September, and Thomson decided that Santa Fe therefore had to make the switch to RCV this year as called for in the 2008 charter amendment.

Ranked-choice rules, used in a few American cities, apply in contests with more than two candidates. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority in an initial tally, the last-place finisher is eliminated and the second-ranked choices of voters for the last-place candidate are distributed to the others. This process continues, with even third- or lower-ranked choices coming into play if necessary, until a winner gets a majority of the votes counted.

Monday’s Supreme Court filing by the RCV supporters notes that the city is challenging the constitutionality of its own charter. It points out that in 2008, the then-city attorney issued an opinion that the relevant constitutional amendment “makes no restriction on the type of runoff” and that there’s no basis to conclude that “a runoff achieved through expressing one’s second (or third) choice at the time of the initial election would be treated any differently from allowing that second (or third) choice to be made some weeks later at a second election.”

The two sides are also arguing over whether Judge Thomson in fact had authority to issue his order in this case.