Editorial: Next city election a new ballgame

// Published March 6, 2008 in Santa Fe New Mexican
Rick Lass got it right Tuesday — in more ways than one: The political activist led an effort to make Santa Fe the latest in a small, but growing, number of cities experimenting with "ranked-choice" or "instant-runoff" voting.

We had — and have — misgivings. But voters gave it strong approval as Amendment 5 to the city charter; same for six other amendments.

As a result, there's a lower, longer-duration petition-signature threshold for initiatives, referenda and — quake in your boots, políticos — removal of officeholders via recall. Publicly financed campaigns also will be instituted. Municipal-judge candidates will have to be attorneys. And the mayor, who until now could vote only to break tie votes on the City Council, will be a voting member on all issues.

All this will take getting used to, especially the campaign-finance amendment and the instant-runoff system — and that's where Lass is right again: Winning Tuesday's election, he told The New Mexican's Julie Ann Grimm that evening, was the easy part; putting together an effective system in time for the 2010 mayor-and-council election will take some hard work.

Karen Walker, the tireless community volunteer who ran for mayor in 2006 and this year was a strong all-amendments advocate, suggests phone calls — to Australia, for starters: That nation has had instant runoffs since 1919. San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., are among American cities doing it. Presumably, those places have software to carry out the daunting process — or to make it less so.

Before it gets to vote-counting, though, there'll be the challenge of educating the electorate — a comparatively small number of people: Tuesday's turnout was less than 20 percent; for 2006, it was 30 percent.

Maybe the novelty of a new system will attract more voters; we hope so, anyway.

What they'll be doing under the new system is voting for everyone on the ballot — but marking the candidates as first choice, second choice, third choice and so on.

If one candidate gets 50 percent-plus, he or she is the winner — a majority winner, not merely a plurality winner, as so often has been the case here. That should make for more satisfied voters.

But if no one crosses the 50 percent line, the ballots are immediately recounted — this time focusing on voters' second choices. Still no majority winner? Count 'em again, for third choices ...

Is everyone sophisticated, and dexterous, enough to do that without spoiling ballots? Sounds like the city will need plenty of spares — or poll workers capable of quick voting-screen resets.

The counting process should be child's play for computer whizzes. But will it be? Or will someone, quick to blame "computer error," make a mess of it? It's not too early to begin invoking saints, gods, spirits, Ouija boards and skillfully tossed chicken bones on behalf of a smooth instant-runoff election in 2010.

But if it does work, we look forward to civil campaigning because candidates might need to be voters' second choice — and to the end of "spoiler" candidates, the bane of plurality elections.

As for campaign finance, it'll be up to the City Council to come up with a formula for allocating public money — your taxes — to candidates. Furrowed brows will follow, but Amendments 4 and 5 promise to make future city elections fascinating.