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Webber elected Santa Fe mayor in first ranked-choice voting

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Winning Santa Fe mayoral candidate Alan Webber and his supporters react as early election results are announced at the Hotel Santa Fe night. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Entrepreneur Alan Webber won the Santa Fe mayor’s race Tuesday in New Mexico’s first ever ranked-choice election.

It took four rounds of counting in the so-called “instant runoff” election system for Webber to get the required majority of votes counted.

Webber was the first choice of 39 percent of the voters. He won after three other candidates — first City Councilor Peter Ives, then Councilor Joseph Maestas followed by school board member Kate Noble — were eliminated in the initial rounds. Webber beat Councilor Ron Trujillo in the final round of counting, 13,088 to 6,689, with 66 percent of the vote.

In ranked-choice, which applies in races with more than two candidates, voters rank their choices from first to last, choose just a first choice or rank just some of the candidates. If no candidate has more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes after the first round of counting, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes on those ballots is distributed to the remaining candidates.

The process is repeated round by round until someone has a majority of votes counted. In later rounds, if the second choice on ballots for candidates being eliminated has already been knocked out, the third choice is counted, and so on.

In Tuesday’s Santa Fe election, Webber’s win means he got enough first-, second- or third-choice votes to win out. The results were announced shortly before midnight.

Webber had been pleased with the early results, compiled by his own campaign from number posted at 12 voting centers and City Hall. But he didn’t claim victory before the City Clerk’s Office announced the final tallies.

Two City Council seats were decided by ranked choice voting, with Carol Romero-Wirth emerging the winner in mostly east side District 2 and JoAnne Vigil Coppler prevailing in mid-city District 4.

Also, incumbent Signe Lindell easily won re-election in eastside District 1 to over challenger Marie Campos. Roman “Tiger” Abeyta was the unopposed winner in southside District 3.

Here’s how the ranked-choice voting for mayor went, round by round:

  • First round: Webber, 39.2 percent, Trujillo 24.4 percent, Noble 22.4 percent Maestas 8 percent, Ives 6 percent .
  • Second round: Webber 41.2 percent, Trujillo 25.6 percent, Noble 24.1 percent, Maestas 8.9 percent.
  • Third round: Webber 44.8 percent, Trujillo 27.9 percent, Noble 27.4 percent.
  • Fourth round: Webber 66.2 percent, Trujillo 33.8 percent.
  • Noble’s loss in the third round by a tiny margin may have been crucial. It’s possible that, considering demographics and Santa Fe’s newcomer versus native dynamic, more of the ballots that had Trujillo as a first choice would have distributed more votes to Noble in the final round than vice versa. Webber moved to Santa Fe in 2003 and Trujillo had called for back-to-basics policies for his hometown.
  • As it turned out, Webber got roughly 75 percent of the Noble vote in the final count.
  • New system

Santa Fe is now the 12th city in the United States to use ranked-choice voting — the same method used to decide Oscar winners — following such cities as Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, Calif.; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; and Telluride, Colo.

Santa Fe voters adopted ranked-choice voting 10 years ago by approving an amendment to the city’s charter, but with a caveat. The method wouldn’t be implemented until the voting machine software capable of tabulating ranked votes was available and affordable. That didn’t happen until last fall when the Secretary of State’s Office certified a new version of software — and after the City Council had twice voted not to implement the new method until 2020 due to concerns over the software’s availability.

When the Dominion Election Systems’ Democracy Suite 5.4 software was certified in late September, a small group of voters sued to force the city to implement it in 2018.

Even after a district judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs the city fought the decision, taking the unusual step of challenging the constitutionality of its own charter amendment. But the state Supreme Court in January upheld the ruling, affirming that the state constitution allowed for ranked-choice voting as a form of runoff election.

Good turnout

The new voting method didn’t seem to discourage people from filling in bubbles on the ballot as voter turnout was high, likely due to the menu of candidates and voter outreach efforts by the city and groups like FairVote New Mexico.

Unofficial results show 20,604 voters filled out ballots for mayor, a 38.05 percent turnout. That’s nearly 700 more votes cast than last year’s “soda tax” special election, which had a 37.57 percent voter turnout, and resulted in defeat of a proposal to levy taxes on sugar-sweetened beverage to pay for early childhood education programs.

There were 17,022 votes cast in the last mayoral election in 2014, a turnout of 29.40 percent.

Incumbent Mayor Javier Gonzales surprised the city political class when he announced in the fall he wouldn’t seek a second four-year term. Gonzales subsequently announced he would run for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor but recently dropped out of that race.

Webber takes on added powers and a higher salary than Gonzales or previous mayors had. Charter amendments approved by voters in 2014 give the new mayor the authority to hire and fire the city attorney, city clerk and city manager without City Council approval. He also will draft the legislative agenda for the city and draft the annual budget. The mayor’s annual salary increases from $29,578 to $110,000.

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