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Councilors pushing for ranked-choice voting this year

City Councilor Isaac Benton

City Councilor Isaac Benton

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct deadline for the city to submit election details to the New Mexico Secretary of State.

Albuquerque’s City Council could soon change the way citizens select their leaders, potentially overhauling the system in time for this fall’s local election.

Three councilors – including two currently running to keep their seats – have proposed a shift to ranked-choice voting in municipal elections for city councilors and the mayor. The process, already used by the city of Santa Fe, would eliminate “costly” runoff elections and “be more respectful of the time and resources of City voters,” according to the legislation sponsored by Councilors Isaac Benton and Pat Davis, both Democrats seeking reelection, and Republican Brad Winter, who is not pursuing another term.

But City Councilor Don Harris said he thinks the matter should go to city voters and is questioning the fairness of making a significant adjustment during election season.

City Councilor Don Harris

“It leaves a troubling perception of councilors who are running for reelection also changing the rules of the election in the middle of it,” Harris, a Republican, said.

Harris has introduced his own legislation that would put the ranked-choice voting question out to voters.

Davis said the council routinely makes election-related decisions and he sees this as no different.

Because only one challenger has emerged in Davis’ race, ranked-choice voting will likely not affect him this year. But he said the potential costs of a runoff for other seats lends the issue some urgency. The 2017 mayoral election runoff cost the city $840,890, according to the legislation.

The mayor is not up for election this year, but four of nine council seats are.

Six candidates, including Benton, have sought public financing to campaign for the council’s District 2 seat. There are five candidates doing the same in District 4, which Winter is leaving after 20 years.

City Councilor Pat Davis

“The idea it’s going to save the city anywhere from a half-million to a million dollars that we really need right now for public safety and other things to get what all the experts tell us is going to be the same (election) results by using ranked-choice voting seems to me to make the case even stronger to get it done this year,” Davis said.

But the window for making a decision in time for the Nov. 5 election is closing.

State law requires the city to submit election details to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office by early June 30.

However, the council’s Finance & Government Operations Committee has yet to advance the ranked-choice legislation to the full City Council. The committee on April 8 postponed action until May 13. Harris, the committee’s chair, then canceled the May 13 session because he was out of town.

Benton said it appears Harris is stalling, so he will likely make a motion at tonight’s City Council meeting to bypass the committee and put the bill on the council’s June 3 agenda.

That procedural move would require support from six of the nine councilors.

Benton does not agree that ranked-choice voting would serve as an obvious benefit for his reelection prospects, saying he thought it could “go either way.”

But he said ranked-choice voting is a practical election mechanism and he thinks its implementation should probably rest with the council.

“It’s technical, it’s a mathematical formula, and we’ve never had it before,” he said. “There’s something to be said of giving it a try and keeping it in the hands of the council in case it needs to be adjusted.”

But Harris said the dramatic overhaul is another reason not to put ranked-choice voting in place this year – 2019 is the first time the city is holding a combined election with other local government agencies. That may already create confusion, he said.

“There’s just not enough time to educate people and too much can go wrong,” he said.

Albuquerque’s charter requires a candidate for councilor or mayor receive at least 50% of the vote to win election. If no candidate reaches that threshold under the city’s existing election rules, the top two finishers go head-to-head in a separate runoff.

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