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Election costs cause contention on council

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Amid ongoing City Council debate about overhauling Albuquerque’s election system, a new discussion has emerged – this time between the city and county clerks.

The City Council is scheduled to decide today whether to implement ranked-choice voting effective for the Nov. 5 election. Supporters say ranked choice will save the city money by rendering runoff elections unnecessary.

But the actual cost of a runoff election remains a moving target, in part because officials do not agree on how to administer one.

Currently, Albuquerque’s charter requires City Council and mayoral candidates to get at least 50% of the vote to win office. In races where no candidate reaches that threshold, the top two compete in a separate runoff.

Four of nine City Council positions are on the Nov. 5 ballot, and two have drawn crowded fields. Seven contenders have emerged for the District 2 seat and five are running in District 4.

City Clerk Katy Duhigg

Albuquerque City Clerk Katy Duhigg told the City Council early this month that a potential runoff would cost around $400,000 based on her estimates. But she changed course last week, saying it may actually cost up to $1 million – a discrepancy she attributed to a difference of opinion with Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover.

Duhigg told a City Council committee last week that Stover is “rejecting” Duhigg’s idea that any potential runoff election features polling places only within contested City Council districts.

The city would have to pick up the tab for any runoff election. But the County Clerk is statutorily charged with running such an election and therefore gets to decide which polling places to open, and Duhigg said Stover “politely agreed to disagree” on a strategy.

“I did not think the County Clerk really would open every voting location in the city for a runoff in one district, but when I met with her (recently), that is exactly what she intends to do,” Duhigg said last week, adding, “It could be up to a million dollars. We do not have that budgeted.”

The city has $290,000 budgeted for a potential runoff, a spokeswoman said.

Jaime Diaz, Stover’s deputy clerk, said it is premature to discuss the scope and cost of a possible runoff election, since the races are not formally set – candidates have until August to file formal declarations. He said he could not provide an estimated cost for a runoff, but does not expect it to reach $1 million.

Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover

Diaz said Stover plans to have up to 19 early voting locations and 69 election-day polling sites for the Nov. 5 election, which features not only the city of Albuquerque races, but also other public entities, like Albuquerque Public Schools, the Village of Los Ranchos, and water and soil districts.

But the city of Albuquerque is the only participant that might require a subsequent runoff, Diaz said. Should that occur, he said Stover would likely reduce the number of voting sites, but would not restrict locations to those within contested City Council districts. He said the office moved away from such “precinct to polling place methodology” to make voting more accessible for people who, for example, spend their workday far away from their residence.

“If there’s two (council) districts (in a runoff), we’ll pare down and we’ll definitely work with the city on paring down – we do know it’s their cost,” Diaz said. “But at the same time, it’s not a blue light sale. We can’t go look for a sale on the election; we can’t reduce costs to a point where we ignore the convenience of the voter and their constitutional right to cast their ballot.”

Duhigg said in an emailed response to Journal questions on Friday that she and Stover are presently working together to determine polling sites for the Nov. 5 election and “will analyze the need for (runoff) polling sites after the November election.” Should Albuquerque need more than budgeted to pay for a runoff, Duhigg said her office would work with the city’s budget staff and City Council to secure the funds.

Albuquerque City Councilors Isaac Benton, Pat Davis and Brad Winter in April introduced a bill that would eliminate the need for any runoff by changing ballots to ranked choice – also known as an “instant runoff” system.

Voters would rank each candidate in a race by preference. If no candidate gets 50% of the first-place picks, officials would eliminate the candidate with the fewest first-place votes, elevate the voter’s second choice to the No. 1 slot, then count again. The process would continue until a candidate reaches the 50% threshold.

The bill says that runoff elections in 2017 and 2013 cost the city $840,890 and $667,045, respectively.

The group aims to implement ranked choice by ordinance, but it has become a divisive issue. Councilor Don Harris – who has accused Benton and Davis of trying to change election law at a time they are candidates – has introduced dueling legislation. Harris wants to put the issue to voters as a question on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Both proposals are expected to be heard today – likely the last opportunity the council would have to implement ranked-choice voting by ordinance to ensure it is in place for the November election.