May 17, 2019

Deadline looms for ABQ ranked-choice voting effort

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Andy Lyman

Albuquerque City Hall

Albuquerque could be the next city in the state to adopt a new way of voting in municipal elections, but a looming deadline doesn’t leave city councilors much time to make it happen.

Ranked-choice voting, sometimes called instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank their choices on a single ballot as opposed to only picking their number one candidate. Santa Fe held their first municipal instant-runoff election last year and about a dozen other municipalities across the U.S. use a similar voting method.

A 2018 change to the state’s election law allows municipalities the option to move their elections to November in order to coincide with state elections, and the law also gives city leaders a chance to switch to an instant-runoff election system.

Cutting it close

In 2018, then-Gov. Susana Martinez signed the Local Election Act into law. The act, in part, allows municipalities to switch to ranked choice voting.

City Councilors Pat Davis, Brad Winter and Isaac Benton co-sponsored legislation in April for Albuquerque to switch to ranked-choice. In a Finance and Government Operations Committee meeting in April, councilors voted to postpone the measure until a May meeting—which was later rescheduled for June 7. Now, to meet the Local Election Act mandated June 30 deadline, the legislation needs to pass through both the committee and the council as a whole by its June 17 meeting.

Davis said it forces the council “down to the last minute” but that he thinks it can still happen.

“It would have been nice to do it in May so we had a little wiggle room and time to plan, but there’s still time to get it done,” Davis said.

Further complicating the issue is a competing bill by Councilor Don Harris. Harris sponsored his own ranked-choice bill, but his would allow voters to decide whether ranked choice is the best option. While supporters may refer to Santa Fe’s recent election, Harris pointed to a neighbor farther north.

“Aspen went to ranked-choice voting,” Harris said. “They did it once and then repealed it, so it’s not the panacea that people think it is.”

In 2007, Aspen, Colorado voters voted for an instant-runoff system, then voted to repeal it in 2009 after just one instant-runoff city council election.

Further, Harris said, he doesn’t like that councilors who are up for election are also pushing the legislation.

“It leaves the perception that people are both playing the game and refereeing it at the same time,” Harris said.

Davis and Benton are both running for reelection in November, while Winter announced earlier this year that he would retire at the end of his term.

Harris agreed timing will be tight and said his opposition to Davis, Winter and Benton’s legislation had nothing to do with him rescheduling the May meeting—he said he had to travel to San Francisco for work.

What’s the hold up?

One of the major drivers behind the push for ranked-choice voting is Common Cause New Mexico’s campaign manager Maria Perez. She said she’s also concerned about the council set to vote on the issue so close to the state deadline.

“It’s perfectly clear that we are running out of time,” Perez said. “We just don’t understand what the hold up is when holding a [traditional] runoff election in 2019 is going to cost the taxpayers of Albuquerque almost $1 million.”

Albuquerque’s election code dictates that if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes, a second runoff election is required. The 2017 mayoral election, for example, had a crowded field. Mayor Tim Keller and then-City Councilor Dan Lewis garnered most of the votes, but neither were the clear winner. Keller ultimately beat Lewis in a run-off election about 30 days later.

While Harris referenced Aspen as an example of why instant-runoff elections don’t always work, Perez said Santa Fe is a great example of how well it can work. An exit poll conducted by FairVote New Mexico showed that almost 70 percent of those surveyed said the process was “not at all confusing” and about 60 percent ranked all five candidates on the ballot.

Santa Fe election officials didn’t have a lot of time to educate the public on the new process because the issue was stuck in court until a judge finally ruled Santa Fe was allowed to implement ranked-choice voting weeks before the election. The fact that Santa Fe pulled off a ranked choice election in less than three months, Perez said, is a major selling point for the system.

“We had very little time to educate voters and there were definitely some hiccups along the way, but it really, really well,” Perez said.