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My view: Charter changes would inspire more voters

John Otter // Published February 10, 2008 in Santa Fe New Mexican
Governments in the United States are conceived to be the people acting through their representatives for the common good. After many struggles, nearly all adult citizens are now allowed to vote. But in Santa Fe typically, only about one-third do, so that officials might not represent the majority of citizens. Also, at times, government has slighted the common good because of influences from private financing of officials' campaigns for office. Proposed City Charter Amendments 4 and 5 — public financing of candidates and ranked-choice voting — on the March 4 ballot would reduce the influence of special interests on the political process and ensure that the winner has the support of a majority of voters. Both amendments would inspire more citizens to vote.

Public financing is expected to equal the maximum spent by any candidate in the race. Candidates who are not independently wealthy or connected to persons with money could run more easily. A wider choice of candidates is likely. Only two candidates ran for more than half the council seats in the last four elections. Publicly-funded candidates would likely spend more time discussing issues and be less influenced by special interests.

Public financing will not keep candidates from being elected with less than half the votes. Forty percent of officials in the last seven elections won with a minority of support. Ranked choice always finds a majority winner by eliminating last-place candidates and assigning each of those votes to the next preference, when needed. Thus, voters can confidently rank candidates according to their true sentiments. A voter simply ranks the candidates according to preference: 1, 2, 3, etc. Ranked choice obviates the costs to candidates and government for a separate runoff election (which usually has a much smaller voter turnout) to find a majority winner.

Ranked-choice encourages positive campaigning because candidates may need to be the second choice of other candidates' supporters to win. It keeps a less-supported candidate from spoiling the chance of a more-supported one with similar views. It keeps the splitting of a majority of votes among two or more like-minded candidates from electing a minority-sentiment candidate.

Ranked-choice voting has been found not to favor any racial, ethnic and economic group. It had high rates of acceptance in all categories in its initial use in San Francisco, despite many voters being unaware of the change in method. Ranked-choice tends to elect mainstream candidates, even though it facilitates a wider audience for "third" viewpoints. No "third party" candidates have been elected to legislatures in Australia in 80 years of use.

Concerns voiced about these amendments have reasonable solutions or are outweighed by the benefits. The cost of public financing would be compensated by more effective use of city finances because of the reduced influence of special interests.

Other budget allocations would not be impacted, if, as expected, funds for public financing of campaigns are raised apart from the regular budget (such as from property tax of roughly $10 on $500,000 assessed valuation).

Software needed for ballot scanners is being developed in response to the rapid increase in use of ranked choice in the U.S. A single software chip could accommodate both county and city ballots. Our ballots will be shorter than the four-page ones read successfully by San Francisco's similar scanners. Hand counting is appropriate since our paper ballots are the legal record. Hand counts have been made accurately and reasonably quickly and economically. Ireland hand counts one million ranked choice ballots. Hand counts obviate problems of scanner malfunction and misuse, intentional or otherwise.

The costs and efforts needed to implement these amendments are well worth the shot in the arm to city elections and government by the people. Costs have been reasonable elsewhere. One additional hour of poll worker training has proven adequate. These two amendments are not the end all of election reform. Nevertheless, they are important and appropriate steps at this time.

John Otter lives in Santa Fe.