A state district judge on Wednesday ordered the city of Santa Fe to use ranked-choice voting in the March election, when voters will choose their first full-time mayor.
Judge David Thomson said the ranked-choice software is “clearly available” and must be used in the election in accordance with the city charter amendment of 2008 that authorized the system.
“To me, in the end, the concerns [about accurately implementing ranked-choice voting] do not meet the law,” Thomson said. “The concerns do not meet the facts.”
What happens next in the five-way competition for mayor and two City Council races with three candidates apiece is not clear.
City attorneys said that whether they decide to pursue an appeal will be up to outgoing Mayor Javier Gonzales and the eight-member council.
For his part, Gonzales wants to implement the new election system. Soon after Thomson announced his decision, the mayor said he would call for a special meeting of the council within 72 hours and introduce an emergency resolution to spend $300,000 for public education and implementation of the new system “to make sure we get this right.”
“Ranked choice voting’s time has come, and I’m pleased Judge Thomson agrees,” Gonzales wrote on Twitter.
The special meeting has been scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Monday. Councilors will be briefed by city attorneys in private and then take action “to set a course forward” in a public session, city spokesman Matt Ross said.
Though voters approved the shift to ranked-choice voting almost 10 years ago, the software with a ranking mechanism was never available to the city or certified by the state until this fall.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting who sued the city in hopes of implementing the system for the March election said they want the governing body to move forward with Thomson’s order.
“We are adamant the City Council not appeal this to the Supreme Court,” said Craig O’Hare, one of the petitioners. “They’ve fought it long enough. The judge has made a sound decision.”
While many questions still surround Santa Fe’s ranked-choice voting system, the fundamentals of the concept are explained here — with dinosaur…
At least one of the city councilors running to succeed Gonzales, Joseph Maestas, was happy with the judge’s decision and said he would try to persuade fellow councilors not to appeal.
“It’s time to implement it. I don’t think that prolonging this legal battle will be productive,” Maestas said.
Councilor Ron Trujillo, who’s running for mayor, said he needs to hear from the city clerk and city staff that sufficient time remains for thorough voter education.
“You can say you like it, you can say you don’t like it, but you have to know how it works,” Trujillo said. “If some people think this is too complicated, they might just say, ‘I’m not going to vote.’ … The truth is not everybody can just jump online and see a YouTube video as to how it works. Not everyone has Wi-Fi, not everybody is computer-savvy. That outreach has got to be huge.”
School board member Kate Noble said she hopes the ranked-choice system will quiet voter anxiety about the five-way race for mayor that includes her.
“Now that we don’t have to be afraid of an outcome where progressives divide the vote or something like that, we can really have a productive, substantive dialogue in campaigning,” Noble said.
Each of the five mayoral candidates in the nonpartisan election is a registered Democrat.
Another candidate for mayor, entrepreneur Alan Webber, said using ranked-choice voting in 2018 is proper. He said he will ask voters who prefer another candidate to make him their second choice. If no candidate breaks the 50 percent threshold, second-place votes received by also-rans will be redistributed to the contenders.
“I have unlimited confidence in the voters of Santa Fe to make this new voting system work as it is intended and to arrive at a fair election outcome that we can all agree on,” Webber said.
Councilor Peter Ives, the fifth candidate for mayor, did not immediately return messages.
County Clerk Geraldine Salazar, whose office will provide the machines the city clerk will use in the election, said she remains concerned about the time crunch in preparing for a new system with new ballots and new rules with election day only three months away.
“The main issue for me is fairness and transparency,” Salazar said.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Kari Fresquez, state elections director, testified that a ranked-choice voting module has been certified as part of an election software upgrade and is being installed on voting machines this week.
Citing this testimony, Thomson ruled the ranked-choice software module is indeed available and must be activated and used in March, as provided for in the city charter.
When the City Council voted earlier this year to delay implementation of ranked-choice voting until after 2018, the new software with a ranked-choice module had not yet been certified. Most councilors said they didn’t trust the software provider, Dominion, to deliver.
Thomson said he considered punting the question of how voters will elect candidates in March back to the council. But the council had the chance to take up the issue again on its own since the ranked-choice voting system was certified by Toulouse Oliver on Sept. 27, and didn’t, Thomson said.
“I do not take lightly the role that I am obligated to play,” Thomson said, adding that he interpreted the state Supreme Court’s September rejection of a similar ranked-choice petition to mean a trial court such as his should determine the facts of the case.
“The court will defer to [Toulouse Oliver]. She has a good deal of credibility on this subject, clearly a good deal of knowledge,” the judge added, referring to the secretary of state’s testimony that the ranking software was available and ready for use.
Toulouse Oliver has said her office is standing by to assist the city clerk with voter education and preparation. Local nonprofit groups have offered to contribute to the education effort, too.
Absentee voting begins in January, and election day is March 6.