By Rick Lass, Green Party of New Mexico
The Green Party of Santa Fe scored a major win on March 4 with the adoption of seven charter amendments, including both public financing of elections and ranked choice voting. This victory adds to the local Green Party’s string of policy reforms going back a dozen years, including creation of a local transit system, repeal of the gross receipts taxes on food and medical services and adoption of the nation’s highest minimum wage.
Ranked Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), is a proven reform that ensures majority winners and increases voter choice and participation. It has been an integral part of the Green Party election reform agenda for a long time, and in New Mexico there is a rich history of advocacy in its pursuit.
The original Santa Fe city charter, adopted in 1997, failed to include ranked choice on a 5-4 committee vote. Mean while Greens and others were working at the New Mexico state legislature, to get a constitutional amendment to require ranked choice for state elections. While the measure was introduced for six consecutive years, it passed the Senate only once, and failed to get through the House.
The efforts in the legislature focused on the ‘spoiler’ issue. Democrat State Senator Phil Maloof, who sponsored the measure the one year it passed the Senate in 1999, had just lost a three-way special election for Congress the preceding year. Many Democrats blamed Green Party candidate Bob Anderson, who received 14.9 percent, and saw the solution as “crush the Greens.” But some of the more enlightened ones realized it was the winner-take-all system that had to go.
In Santa Fe, municipal elections are non-partisan and require only plurality winners. Fifteen of the last 35 elected officials won with a minority of the vote, with one receiving a mere 32 percent. Greens are focusing on the undemocratic nature of plurality winners and are pointing out that, like other municipalities that have adopted ranked choice in recent years, there would no longer be expensive, low-turnout runoffs.
In 2006 a specially appointed Charter Review Commission (CRC) reviewed over thirty suggested improvements. After more than a year of meetings, the CRC settled on seven recommended amendments to the charter. Numbers one, two and three relax onerous provisions of existing laws for citizen initiative, referendum and recall. Amendment four requires the city council to come up with a “meaningful” public funding system within two years. Amendment five adopts Ranked Choice Voting for municipal elections. Amendment six gives the mayor more voting power, and amendment seven requires the local judge be a member of the Bar. All in all, these amendments could be grouped as good government and direct democracy improvements.After the CRC report was submitted to the city council in December of 2006, the council dragged its feet for almost a year, sending it first to the Ethics and Finance Committees before voting last September to send the package to the voters, to be included on the March 2008 regular election ballot.
At its October meeting, the Green Party of Santa Fe endorsed the full package. County Chair Emily Franklin announced that this was a critical issue for the local party, and pledged to make the ranked choice campaign her highest priority. Other Greens quickly followed suit, and the Green endorsement was prominent throughout the campaign. Many individual Greens also did a great deal of the campaign grunt work, including setup and upkeep of the website and list management.
Voting Matters was the lead organization on the Ranked Choice campaign, while Common Cause took the lead on the Public Funding amendment. Voting Matters is a 501(c)4 organization founded in August 2006 to work on electoral reforms in Santa Fe and New Mexico. Short term it focuses on measures to increase voter participation, and in the long term with the goal of implementing Ranked Choice Voting for single seat elections and proportional representation for legislature and city councils. Voting Matters was founded by three Green party members, John Otter, Sheila Sullivan, and Rick Lass [www.votingmatters.net].
The campaign relied mostly on word of mouth, direct voter contact and piggybacking on existing events with little door–to-door campaigning in the cold February weather. The campaign was supported by endorsers’ organizational communications, some phoning and two direct mailings to about 20,000 targeted voters- those who had voted in one of the last three elections and those who registered since the previous elections.
Endorsements came from Peace and Justice groups, election reform organizations such as Verified Voting and Com mon Cause, and groups as diverse as the local independent business Alliance and the Living Wage Network. The campaign mentioned, but did not highlight, national endorsers like FairVote and John McCain, Howard Dean, and Barack Obama.
There was no organized opposition to the amendment, but there were a couple of negative letters to the editor. The media did a good job of explaining the amendments, and there were two poorly attended public forums.
The first “Yes” campaign mailer went out three weeks before the election, timed to appear after the media spotlight was off the Democratic Party Presidential Caucus and the state’s legislative session. The mailing also went out first class bulk, so it could get returns of bad addresses in order to clean the database for a more targeted Get Out The Vote postcard, which arrived in voters’ mailboxes the Saturday before the election. A volunteer sent cards to everyone who requested an absentee ballot.
No funds were used for print ads, because the cost effectiveness would not be very high in such a low turnout election. With some money left near the end, the campaign scheduled 36 thirty-second radio ads on the local bilingual station KSWV (!Que Suave!). There was some fear that the amendment might break along racial lines, but the results disprove that. The variation between precincts was less than three percent across the city.
The final results: Charter Amend ment 5 passed with 65 percent of the vote. Unfortunately, the city council inserted a clause that allows it to delay implementation until technology and software are available at a reasonable price. So there is still work to ensure implementation of both Ranked Choice and Public Finan cing. It may be that winning the election was the easy part, for now it is in the hands of elections administrators to implement the will of the people.
Privately-owned voting machine manufacturers and/or election administrators may be less than enthusiastic about enabling this reform. IRV has been on the ballot 14 times since the San Francisco’s breakthrough victory for it in 2001 and it has passed 13 times. But in almost every case, this implementation issue has come up. How it is resolved is one of the key next steps in electoral reform.