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Supreme Court clears way for ranked-choice voting in Santa Fe

A website created to help Santa Feans understand ranked-choice voting shows this sample ballot, with animals as candidates. Olivia Owl is the public information campaign’s mascot.

SANTA FE, N.M. — The New Mexico Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for ranked-choice voting in Santa Fe’s March 6 municipal election.

The high court rejected city government’s petition seeking to overturn state District Judge David Thomson’s December ruling that Santa Fe had to implement ranked-choice voting, or RCV, in 2018.

The Supreme Court’s order simply denied the city’s petition without explanation or comment.

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City spokesman Matt Ross said the decision was a disappointment, partly because no explanation was provided.

“We hoped the Supreme Court would clarify the constitutional and separation of powers questions before them. While we have an order, we don’t have a written explanation resolving any post-election challenge that may arise,” Ross said.

“That being said, the City has been working around the clock for weeks to implement Ranked Choice Voting and educate the public about the change, so nothing will change on that front and we are confident in the City’s ability to run yet another smooth and successful Santa Fe election.”

The attorney representing a handful of Santa Fe voters who filed a lawsuit to force the city to implement RCV said Tuesday’s order means democracy won. In 2008, city voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the city charter calling for RCV elections as soon as appropriate vote-counting software was available at a reasonable price.

“What I love about this decision is that it really is allowing and recognizing that when voters vote, the city must honor that vote and honor that election,” said attorney Teresa Leger.

Leger also said that by denying the city’s petition, the court upheld the constitutionality of the RCV, also known as “instant runoff.”

Santa Fe will be the first jurisdiction in New Mexico to use ranked-choice, which is in place in several other cities around the country including San Francisco and Minneapolis. The mayor’s position and four City Council seats are on the ballot.

In July, the current City Council narrowly voted against using RCV in this year’s election because voting software offered by a vendor had not been certified. Some councilors also said more time was needed to educate voters about the change.

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But the software was OK’d by the Secretary of State’s Office in late September. Judge Thomson decided that Santa Fe therefore had to make the switch to RCV this year. The City Council voted 5-4 last month to appeal Thomson’s order to the Supreme Court.

“Now (RCV) can proceed without the cloud that the City Council (created) by challenging it,” Leger said Tuesday. “They had created a cloud of uncertainty and the decision by the Supreme Court has removed that.”

The city’s Supreme Court petition maintained that RCV 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 put RCV on the ballot in 2008.

Ranked-choice rules 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.

In their filing, RCV supporters noted that the city was challenging the constitutionality of its own charter.

They also pointed 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 also argued over whether Judge Thomson in fact had authority to issue his order in this case.

Ranked-choice supporters say it helps keep voters from having to choose between “the lesser of two evils,” prevents fringe candidates from being “spoilers” and discourages negative campaigning.

As the Supreme Court case played out, the city started a public education campaign to familiarize voters with RCV. There will be a mock RCV election using cute animals as candidates.

“As we said in our brief,” Leger said, “the city has done and excellent job of holding forums and providing voter education. They showed themselves that they could do it.”

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