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City Council turns down move to use ranked-choice voting

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque citizens will not use ranked-choice voting to determine city councilors in the upcoming election – but they may get to decide if they want to adopt the system for future ballots.

Following an hour of public comment largely supportive of the proposal, the City Council rejected a bill to amend a city ordinance to implement ranked-choice voting. Five Councilors opposed it, while only four voted in favor.

But the idea is not entirely dead.

A competing proposal to ask voters with a Nov. 5 ballot question if they approve of moving to a ranked-choice system for 2021 is still alive and should have at least one more hearing later this summer.

Under the defeated ranked-choice proposal, voters would have ranked each candidate in a race by preference. If no candidate received 50% of the first-place picks – the minimum required to win Albuquerque mayoral and City Council elections – officials would have eliminated the candidate with the fewest first-place votes, then counted again. The process would have continued until a candidate reached the 50% threshold, negating the need for a separate runoff election.

A bipartisan trio of councilors, Isaac Benton, Pat Davis and Brad Winter, introduced the ranked-choice voting proposal in April. The legislation said the update would save the city money by eliminating potential runoff elections, which currently occur when no candidate hits 50%. Runoffs cost the city $840,890 and $667,045 in 2017 and 2013, respectively. Ranked choice would also “help minimize administrative and staffing burdens, (and) would be more respectful of the time and resources of city voters,” according to the bill.

Their proposal would’ve kept the election change in the council’s hands, using the panel’s legislative authority to amend city ordinance and institute ranked-choice voting for the Nov. 5 election. However, Councilor Diane Gibson won support for an amendment that would have delayed implementation until 2021. She said it would help avoid questions that sponsors who are competing in the upcoming election – Davis and Benton are both up for re-election this fall – were changing rules in a way that could directly benefit them.

More than 30 people spoke about the legislation during Monday night’s City Council meeting, nearly all in support of the council adopting ranked-choice voting via ordinance. They said it would save taxpayers money and the trouble of having to vote a second time in a potential runoff. Some also touted it as a way to promote more civil campaigning.

“The state of Maine has gone so far as to elect their congressional representatives by ranked-choice voting, and I don’t think of Maine as a radical place, so I don’t think this should really be too scary for anybody,” supporter Karen Bonime told the council.

But a few speakers urged the council to leave such decisions up to the voters.

The Benton/Davis/Winter bill ultimately failed, with Cynthia Borrego, Don Harris, Trudy Jones, Klarissa Peña and Ken Sanchez voting it down.

“I really think it’s an interesting concept, it’s something I’m not necessarily opposed to; I just don’t think it’s something we need at this time,” said Peña, adding that it might create confusion among voters.

But Davis told the Journal after the vote that postponing a decision does not make financial sense and might be problematic should the city indeed require a runoff election currently planned for mid-December.

“Kicking this decision down the road just ensures that we have to spend money we don’t have on an election we don’t need,” he said in a written statement. “I’m disappointed, but voters will be wishing we passed this when their holidays are interrupted by phone calls and door knocks urging them to vote in a runoff a week before Christmas.”

Harris’ alternative proposal – to ask voters on Nov. 5 if they want ranked-choice voting in the future – remains in play. It is headed for a second hearing in August, when the council resumes action after a July hiatus. If voters approve ranked-choice voting on Nov. 5, Harris’ proposal would require the city clerk to make recommendations about which ranked-choice methodology to use by Jan. 1, 2020, which the council may or may not accept. It would also give the council the flexibility to modify the ordinance to change the methodology six months before any local election.

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