Commentary: This year, the legislature made significant election reforms to improve how we elect city councilors, school board members and special district boards. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed it into law.
The consolidation of some local elections into one election day in November of odd numbered years simplifies the election calendar, creates consistency in election administration, and saves money. However, we will not reach our highest potential with this new law unless our municipal governments agree that their voters are served best in a consolidated election. The Local Election Act only required schools and special districts to consolidate. Municipalities get to choose. It is my goal to provide our voters with the most value possible which should make choosing to opt in an easy decision for our local municipalities.
The City of Las Cruces is considering a special election in August, so it makes sense that they are the first city in Doña Ana County to consider the implications of the Local Election Act; although all municipalities should now be considering the benefits of consolidation.
If the City of Las Cruces chooses to consolidate its election with schools and special districts, it will continue to be in November of odd numbered years. The election will be administered by the Doña Ana County Clerk’s Office using the same practices and voting options of a general election, thereby offering the increased value of more early voting options, extended absentee voting for our military and overseas voters, and other built-in best practices designed to increase access and protect the integrity of the election.
If the city chooses not to consolidate, it will continue to administer its own elections following what would be new standard practices from a unified election code. In addition, the city would move its election to March of even numbered years when most other municipalities hold their elections.
Equally as consequential for voters and taxpayers, the City of Las Cruces can now choose how it wants to conduct runoff elections. For the city of Las Cruces, candidates must reach 40 percent of the vote in order to be elected. While it’s been more than 20 years since a candidate has failed to reach that 40 percent threshold, when it happens, candidates will engage a runoff election. The city has two choices: a separate top-two runoff election held about a month later, or an instant runoff utilizing ranked-choice voting.
This question matters because it has budget implications.
If the City of Las Cruces chooses to hold a separate top-two runoff election, it will be held more than a month after the original election and it will cost twice as much. This effectively eliminates the budget savings that consolidation would guarantee, and it results in a second election with about half the participation. However, if it chooses to hold instant runoff elections, the election budget will be cut in half and voters will only need to vote in one election. This offers voters more value.
Instant runoff elections using ranked-choice voting allow voters to rank candidates by preference instead of choosing just one. Communities that use ranked-choice voting benefit from increased candidate civility, a reduction in strategic voting, and significant cost savings.
Ranked-choice voting comes with challenges. If chosen, the city, county and community partners need to work together to educate the electorate. Fortunately, we have plenty of time to do this. Santa Fe implemented this change successfully using a good model for community education. After their election they saw 94 percent satisfaction and 70 percent confidence that their vote counted.
The choices that Las Cruces City councilors will make in the coming months could be historic for our voters. It will also set the momentum that other municipalities throughout the state will follow, thus having implications beyond Doña Ana County. We have the chance to work together to provide our voters with the very best elections possible, and I look forward to working together to make sure we reach our highest potential.