by Tabitha Hall, Albuquerque Greens, New Mexico

Spurred on by their recent successes at the polls, New Mexico Greens took the lead in 1997-98 to push for meaningful electoral reform. Their legislative committee set the stage for a statewide, multi-partisan effort to institute ‘Instant Runoff Voting’ (IRV) for municipal and all state executive offices.

IRV is a system in which the voter ranks the candidates in a particular race according to the voter’s preference. Each voter ranks the candidates, 1, 2, 3 and so on. In a multi-candidate field where no majority winner — defined as at least 50 percent plus one — has appeared, the bottom vote getter is dropped and the people who ranked them first will have their second choice votes tabulated. The same process repeats until a majority winner appears.

In this system, few votes are wasted, and the voter is not held hostage to considerations of ‘throwing away’ their vote. By making it easier to vote for a ‘third party’ candidate, it also gives a clearer indication of the voter’s real preferences.

In light of recent Green Party gains, interest in electoral change has been high on all sides. Greens were accused of throwing elections to the Republicans by siphoning off progressive votes from the Democrats, particularly in the case of Carol Miller’s 17% for US Congress in 1997. In addition, state courts ruled that Albuquerque’s traditional runoff system was unconstitutional, which resulted in the state’s largest city electing a mayor with only 29% of the vote.

New Mexico has a part-time legislature. The Green Party spun off a legislative lobbying group called New Mexicans for Instant Runoff Voting (NMIRV) in time for the thirty day legislative session in January 1998. Headed up by Green male and female co-chairs, this energetic group lobbied the legislators daily, and learned the ropes of lobbying “on the job.” Senate Bill 8, an amendment to the state constitution, was introduced on the floor and went to two committees before it died in a tied 4-4 vote.

Although it was clear that support for IRV fell along Democrat and Republican party lines, in the first committee hearing, an idiosyncratic Republican ensured the resolution’s passage out of committee by his behavior and personal attacks on NMIRV representatives. In the second committee the Republican had done his homework and his fellow Republicans were set to vote with him and against the bill.

In New Mexico, the legislative committees are scheduled simultaneously, so aides and advocates must work hard to help legislators to be there for important votes. This system places the onus on lobbyists to educate legislators in advance because the odds are that any particular legislator will miss key testimony. In the second committee there were many times when IRV might have passed because of missing committee members on the Republican side. However, when it came down to the vote, the ninth (Democrat) legislator was missing despite all efforts to find him, so it fell to a 4 to 4 tie.

What lessons can be learned? Citizen lobbyists in New Mexico are rare and legislators can be polite and accessible to them. Electoral reform is a hot topic. Even those who opposed IRV were eager to talk and listen. Even the most powerful and curmudgeonly legislator was gracious and wanted to discuss substantive issues in regard to the bill. This was a tremendous opportunity to educate legislators and show them that the Greens are more credible than they had imagined.

NMIRV held a demonstration of instant runoff voting in the rotunda of the capitol building, which was well-attended by legislators, the Secretary of State’s office (that willingly printed up sample ballots and loaned us the voting machines for the demonstration), and the press. This raised the “product awareness.” We gave them candy and had them vote on the machines.

IRV also gathered an impressive group of endorsers, including New Mexico Common Cause; New Mexico Public Interest Research Group; US Senator Jeff Bingaman; former Albuquerque mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Marty Chavez; former Governors Toney Anaya (D) and David Cargo (R); state Democratic Party Chair Ray Sena; several chairs of Democratic county committees; state Reform Party chair; and the New Mexico Green Party.

Other states are looking at IRV legislation. One of the nation’s few third party representatives, Terry Bouricius, is making progress in Vermont, where a task force of legislators and civic leaders has been created to study IRV. In California, the Green Party plans to begin gathering signatures to qualify an IRV ballot initiative for the November, 2000 statewide ballot.

How can you pursue IRV in your own state? Select your bill’s sponsor carefully. The amount of interest your sponsor has, and his or her work habits will greatly influence the outcome of the bill. Rely on the bill sponsor’s staff people for help. They will often do extra things such as make copies, send e-mail or faxes, track the bill and nudge the sponsor into being more responsive.

Clearly the Greens around the nation belong in the halls of their state legislatures not simply running for office. In a period of two months, a group of three or four Greens were able to become proficient in the ideas behind instant runoff voting, design and implement a campaign including literature, and do daily lobbying. Grassroots efforts to lobby and bring about progressive legislation are golden opportunities for Greens to participate in the political discourse with an eye to education and a firm group on their principles.

The other major lesson from New Mexico is that strong third-party candidacies bring out the defects in the present winner-take-all electoral system. Charges of “spoiler” can be used to focus attention on proposals for PR and IRV.

Prospects for IRV in New Mexico remain hopeful, with organizing likely for next legislative session. For more info on IRV and proportional representation, go to http://www.igc.org/cvd.

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By the Green Party of Colorado

Hailing the passage of a new state law encouraging local governments to use Instant Runoff Voting, Colorado Green Party members have called on cities and counties around the state to implement ranked voting methods in upcoming elections.

In May, Governor Bill Ritter signed into law HB08-1378. It was championed by state Representative John Kefalas (D-Fort Collins) and former Green. The Voter Choice Act permits cities and counties to use ranked voting methods, and requires the Secretary of State to create rules for conducting such local elections.

“If politics is the art of the next step, than Rep. Kefalas’ election reform measure is a Picasso,” said Art Goodtimes, San Miguel County Commissioner and Green Party member. “Instant Runoff Voting will save taxpayer money, guarantee majority wins, and allow citizens to vote for multiple candidates of their choosing—that means more candidates, more choice, more democracy. It’s darn exciting.”

“It is long past time to extend this form of voting to all elections held in Colorado,” said Bob Kinsey, Green Party candidate for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat. “Voters deserve a broader range of choices than what the so-called two-party system provides. Money, name recognition and image will become less significant. Voters will feel more empowered and become more active in the process.”

Dr. Ron Forthofer, former Green Party candidate for governor is also a member of the 2007 Voter Choice Task Force. The task force was instrumental is laying the foundation for the new law. Forthofer said the momentum for voting reform is growing.

Ranked voting methods have been used in dozens of American cities over the years. In Colorado, Basalt and Aspen have already adopted ranked voting, while cities like Grand Junction and Boulder have used these methods in the past. Minneapolis (MN), Oakland (CA) and Burlington (VT) are among cities that recently switched to ranked voting methods.

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.

This victory adds to the local Green Party\'s string of policy reforms going back a dozen years.

This victory adds to the local Green Party's string of policy reforms going back a dozen years.

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 doorto-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.