What Dona Aña County Learned about Ranked-Choice Voting in the 2019 Municipal Elections
Doña Ana County’s November election drew 17 percent of registered voters to the polls.
In Las Cruces, turnout was better at 22.3 percent. Las Cruces was one of about a dozen cities nationwide to use ranked-choice voting.
Deputy County Clerk Lindsey Bachman said it’s hard to pinpoint what drives turnout—but voter participation in Las Cruces was higher than 2017's 10.5 percent and 2015's 18.6 percent turnout numbers.
“We had a full ballot of local entities, everything from Las Cruces mayor, Sunland Park mayor, Hatch mayor, right. And each one of those entities are talking about the election and are hopefully asking voters to show up and vote. So, I think that consolidation process really helped," Bachman said. "I also think that ranked-choice voting likely played a role in getting voters out just because there was a lot of buzz about the change in process. We did a number of community presentations and we also know that there were other organizations out there hosting special events and presentations just about ranked-choice voting.”
In the Las Cruces race for mayor, Ken Miyagishima won a fourth term, with Bill Mattiace coming in second after all nine elimination rounds. Bachman said the county is fortunate more candidates didn’t run for mayor since 10 is the maximum voters can rank.
“You know, I don't know if I had really had an expectation going into the election about how many rounds it would go—but what I think it really codifies is this idea that people should be ranking as many candidates as they can put their weight behind," Bachman said. "Because what happens is if you do not choose to rank your ballot all the way out or even just beyond your first choice, you're forfeiting your right to vote in a runoff."
While 22 percent of registered voters in Las Cruces cast ballots for mayor, the data indicates most of them made use of ranked choice. 88.5 percent of those ballots stayed active through the final round. That means the remaining 11.5 percent of ballots ranked neither Miyagishima nor Mattiace.
Turnout in the three city council races mirrored the mayoral race. 20.2 percent of registered voters in District 1 cast ballots while voters in District 2 turned out at 22.5 percent. District 4 had the lowest turnout at 18.3 percent.
Unofficial election results trickled in after midnight. Bachman said part of the delay came from waiting for judges at some sites to deliver results. Since voters can vote at any location in the county—regardless of where they’re registered—she said instant runoffs can’t take place until all sites are in.
She added that takes time despite the county’s best logistical efforts.
“And I do think having this expectation that results are going to be in really quickly is going to be a thing of the past as more voters show up. Next year I think we're, there are some estimates that say we’ll have something like 70 percent of the electorate show up on Election Day—which is awesome—but in order for that process to be one that’s really accurate and fair and transparent, we have to be steady but take our time and be efficient about that," Bachman said. "It’ll just take longer."
It was the first election for Steven Marcus since moving to Las Cruces last year. Marcus said he thought the ranked-choice format was confusing.
“I didn’t like it... doing it for the first time and being a new resident here... I wasn’t wild about it," Marcus said. “No, I think a runoff—I know it costs money but that’s the cost of democracy. You have to really, you have to pony up if you‘re going to have an election. And if it comes out if someone... is not the decisive winner, then you have a runoff. That’s how you do it.”
Other voters like Angelo Vega gave the system positive marks. While there was no minimum number of candidates voters had to rank, Vega said he ranked all 10 candidates for mayor.
“I felt it was pretty easy. You just put things in order how you wanted it, how you wanted your candidates and it saves us money," Vega said. "You know, for us to have two elections you know is a waste of money when we can just do one and that’s what I liked about it.”
Besides the cost-savings, Bachman said the instant-runoff format benefits voters by giving them more say in who gets elected. She added previous runoff elections in the county traditionally saw voter turnout of less than 10 percent.
“So, then you have even less of the population weighing in ultimately on who wins. What we know is that ranked-choice voting or instant runoff voting is more convenient for voters because you’re participating in the runoff at the ballot box the first time," Bachman said. "So, each round is like an additional runoff and what’s great about that is that it’s more convenient for people and also it saves the city quite a bit of money.”
About $100,000—the cost of a separate runoff election, according to the clerk’s office.
Bachman said there’s room for improvement when it comes to selecting and training poll workers. But overall, she said the county did well to educate voters and organize election officials.