Casting Away

Some voters ranked all the candidates with pleasure; others with resignation. Some said they only ranked their top two choices and a few said they picked their sole top choice and that was it. As Santa Fe city voters left polling places March 6 for the municipality’s first foray into ranked-choice voting, their attitudes and actions at the polls were mixed.

Carolynn Roibal, a poll worker at Sweeney Elementary School, one of the city's 12 voting convenience centers, said there had been more spoiled ballots than usual "but that's to be expected"—and relatively benign, given the brisk activity. She said poll workers were "just trying to keep it simple" and that the voter information provided by the city had helped explain the new system to voters. "It's all about choices," she said.

Out in Sweeney's parking lot, Joe B, who declined to give his last name, said he chose to only rank his first and second choices in the five-way mayoral race between Peter Ives, Joe Maestas, Kate Noble, Ron Trujillo and Alan Webber. In Joe B's case, those two candidates were Maestas and Trujillo. "I want to vote for the person I favor," he said. "My vote should be just for the person I want in office."

Fellow Sweeney voter George Schwartz, on the other hand, chose to rank all five candidates. "I like it because I could give a woman [Kate Noble] a chance, even though she's not my first," he said. Schwartz said he had cast his first place vote for Webber largely because he'd liked the testimonials he'd heard from people in the campaign about Webber's mentorship.

Some said they had found the process confusing. Rosina Romero, who voted at Nava Elementary, said she actually filled out her ballot incorrectly in terms of her first and second choices, but chose to just leave it rather than request a new one. "I just said OK and finished," she said. Another voter leaving Kearney Elementary said it took her three tries to get it right.

Various voters said they were concerned turnout might be lowered by people confused by the new system. At Kearney, Carmen Ortiz said voting "wasn't bad," but had "heard a lot of people saying they were afraid it was confusing."

A supporter of Ron Trujillo's, who was holding a sign for her candidate outside one of the polling places and asked not to be identified, said she ranked all the candidates, but thought "it should just be one choice. I ranked because it was something that was pushed, and anything that allows our voice is important, but something like this there should have been more education."

On the same block, Ives supporters Corrine Lovato and Ambrogio Ossola said the process had been easy and the voters they'd talked to on the campaign trail were relatively sanguine about the shift. "There was only one person who said, 'I liked the old system,'" Ossola noted.

SFR's encounters with voters seemed to be in line with FairVote New Mexico's—at least at Nava Elementary, where a FairVote volunteer was exit-polling responses to RCV with a two-page survey. That survey asked a variety of questions about voters' attitudes toward the election itself and RCV in particular, including how many candidates voters had ranked in the mayoral race; whether or not they liked RCV; if they had found the RCV ballot confusing; and if they thought RCV should be used in future city elections. The survey also asked voters to gauge whether the election had been more civil than those in the past (often touted as a selling point for RCV elections and a dynamic that has been repeatedly noted for this election).

FairVote New Mexico volunteer Mary Schruben, who was surveying voters at Nava Elementary (where she voted), said of the voters she'd connected with responses had been "half and half. … Some people really liked it. Some, because it's the first time, people aren't sure what to do." FairVote was a party to the lawsuit that led to RCV this year, after voters approved it through a city charter amendment 10 years ago. Nationally, FairVote has compiled data for a variety of cities where RCV has been implemented.

Voters' decisions about ranking did not seem connected to their comprehension of the process. Voter Lesley Mayfield said "it was a lot easier than I expected," but chose only to vote for her top choice: Noble. Another voter said she'd only voted for Trujillo because she didn't know anything about the other candidates. Retired corrections guard Bernie Uranga also thought voting "was pretty easy" but he too only voted "for one person because I don't know that much about the other ones." (Uranga voted for Trujillo.)

Former City Judge Tom Fiorina and Caryn Fiorina ranked the candidates differently, and stopped to speculate on how the election might turn out. "When we walked out, I thought, 'I wonder what the results are going to be like,'" Caryn said. As for Judge Fiorina, he said he too left some people off in his particular council race.

But for voter David Vigil, ranking all the candidates left him feeling like he'd fully participated in both the process and the outcome.

"I like it, because even if your first choice doesn't win, at least you get more of a say," Vigil said. "You voted for the person who won."

Candidates mostly agree that the new ballot method did involve strategic moves, but not all.

Maestas said he believes at least two people have to get eliminated for him to have a chance to cash in on what he thinks is strong second-place support.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are voting for Kate or Alan who have me second. And I think that Ron and I—and I don’t mean to imply that this is the only thing that matters—but we’re the only two candidates with Hispanic surnames. In some of the mid and south neighborhoods, I think Ron and I do well there.”

Noble said the ballot system did not change her plan.

“I haven’t run a race like this before,” she said. “I’m told it could have been more negative. … We wanted to run a broad-based race, so I don’t know what we would have done differently.”

For his part, Trujillo said he worked hard at getting No. 2 votes.

“I think it changes how you campaign. If I’m not your number one, I want to be your number two,” he said.

On an individual basis with voters, he said, it was important to work that chance to earn a second- or third-place rank from people who may not agree completely with your positions.