OK, Santa Fe. We’ve seen how ranked-choice voting works. Alan Webber bested four other candidates for mayor in the fourth and final round, which he won in a landslide in an “instant runoff.”
Using first-choice ballots as a guide, he also would have come out the mayor-elect under Santa Fe’s previous voting system, where a simple plurality – the most votes, majority or not – was all that was needed.
Webber got 39.2 percent of the first-place votes in the initial round, compared to 24.4 percent for Councilor Ron Trujillo, who also was second place in the fourth and final round won by Webber.
Although it took all night to come up with a final result, there didn’t seem to be any major problems or polling place confusion with ranked-choice voting. Everybody says the software worked. Only 52 of more than 20,000 votes cast – a big turnout for city election – were “overvotes” with two candidates ranked in the same position.
Councilor Peter Ives was the first go, with 6 percent in the first round, and Councilor Joseph Maestas was the second out. He got 8 percent of first-choice ballots and just went up to 8.9 percent when the second-choice candidates of Ives voters were distributed to the rest of the field.
The third round, it turned out, was the most interesting. Trujillo beat out school board member Kate Noble by only half a percentage point, 89 votes, to move on to the conclusive final round against Webber.
The overwhelming majority of the votes that Noble had collected went to Webber and gave him a runaway win over Trujillo.
It’s reasonable to suggest, considering demographics, campaign dynamics and the different backgrounds of the candidates, that less of the Trujillo vote would have gone to Webber if Noble had somehow made it into the final round instead of Trujillo. The final, fourth round could have been much closer.
And maybe at some point, the city’s RCV system will be able provide the kind of transparency that would answer those kinds of hypotheticals, without some enterprising news organization having to sort through all 5,600 or so votes that were in the Trujillo column by Round 3 to see.
At some point, Santa Feans need to step back and assess RCV. The voting method seems perfectly designed for a race with a third-party or outsider candidate. With RCV, you could vote for Jill Stein for president, make Hillary Clinton your second choice and not risk throwing the election to Donald Trump.
In Santa Fe’s case, there was no outsider candidate who was on the ballot as a mere “spoiler.” RCV let us rank five candidates from first to last, but in the end, ranked choice in this particular Santa Fe election just produced the same result as a plurality election.
The publicity over ranked choice, and the city’s expensive but necessary education campaign to explain RCV, did probably helped spark interest and drive up turnout.
Arguably, a traditional, two-candidate runoff a couple of weeks after the election would have allowed for sharper distinctions to be drawn than when five candidates make nice as they campaign for second- and third-place votes under RCV. And, again arguably, a strong outsider candidate (like populist Debbie Jaramillo in the 1990s) may have a better chance of winning with a plurality than winning through the RCV process.
So there’s a lot to consider, even after the New Mexico’s first-ever RCV election went off smoothly and the sky didn’t fall. Maybe after another RCV election or two, the City Different can rank ranked choice and decide if it wants to keep it forevermore.