Editor’s Note: This analysis first ran in the Sun in October 2019. Nothing has changed since then. T or C’s atypical voting system continues to make victory difficult for reform-minded candidates who are not backed by the powers-that-be and their loyal bloc of voters who are happy with the way the city is managed. With early voting set to begin tomorrow for a regular local election to be held on Nov. 2, the piece has been updated and re-posted to encourage consideration of alternative voting systems that might result over time in the election of a group of commissioners who more closely reflect the social and political diversity of T or C’s population.
The City of Truth or Consequences has neither a district nor an at-large form of elections, but an atypical mixture of the two. Different voting systems produce different results, and research shows the city’s system preserves the status quo, enabling the entrenched majority to put up and elect its candidates. Those candidates espousing varying views are consistently edged out.
If the city were divided into true districts, with candidates having to live in the district in which they were running and be elected by voters living in those districts, commission elections would better reflect the people’s choice, at least in those districts. A district-based form of voting might produce commissioners with differing views that represented the diversity of T or C’s voting population.
However, the city’s five commission seats do not correspond to a geographic area, and all the candidates represent the whole city, even though they are elected to fill specific “positions.” Each voter gets to vote for whom they want for each open position.
This is a rare form of election. The National League of Cities, Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s 2011 “Voting Methods,” describe numerous voting systems, but none are like that employed in Truth or Consequences.
Under the T or C system, this might happen: Imagine there are three seats open on the city commission, as is the case for the upcoming Nov. 2 election.
The city’s position-based voting system allows the entrenched majority to put up a candidate for each position and elect him or her to office with the support of its usually dominant bloc of voters. The entrenched majority can keep returning favored representatives to office for years, since there are no term limits placed on city commission service. Wikipedia calls this “cloning” candidates.
Here’s how commission elections currently play out. Imagine the first open position has one candidate running unopposed. That candidate wins automatically before the first vote is cast under the city’s current system. Imagine the second position has two opposing candidates. In the last T or C commission election, held on March 3, 2019, a total of 923 voters participated. If the entrenched majority can garner 462 or more votes, it can narrowly put its candidate for the second position in office. Imagine the third seat has three opposing candidates. Again, 462 votes are needed to ensure that the majority’s candidate trounces the other two contenders. Since they are likely to split the vote, the majority’s candidate could sail to victory with far fewer than 462 votes.
That’s what happened in 2019, when four candidates ran for each of T or C’s three open commission seats. A total of 923 votes cast were cast for Position II, with Randall Aragon winning the seat with 283 votes. A total of 909 votes were cast for Position IV. Brendan Tolley won the seat with 601 votes—a rare case of a candidate with crossover appeal to two or more voting blocs. A total of 920 votes were cast for Position V, with Amanda Forrister winning with 300 votes.
A more common form of voting, according to Wikipedia, is “plurality voting,” which can produce fairer results. Again imagine six candidates are running for three open seats. Voters choose their top three favorites. In this scenario, no unopposed candidate wins automatically; everyone must compete.
The Wikipedia and Stanford explanations of “limited voting” suggest this form of voting might allow more minority-view candidates to be elected, dampening the usual majority’s voice on governing boards and promoting a greater diversity of viewpoints.
Under a limited voting system, if there are, say, three seats open, the voter choses only one or two of the candidates, all of whom, again, are running against one another. Fewer votes are needed for a candidate to rise to the top.
According to Wikipedia and Stanford, the majority bloc would probably not prevail completely unless it put up the number of candidates corresponding to the proportion of votes it can garner. Otherwise, it would split the vote among its own candidates. In the imagined case of six candidates running for three seats, if bloc candidates garnered the accustomed half of all votes cast, they would win one or two seats. Therefore, it is likely the third seat would be filled by a minority-view candidate, and there is a 50-50 chance that another minority-view candidate would fill the second seat.
There is nothing in T or C’s local laws that addresses or lays out the form of voting that must be used in city commission elections.
State law does not address the issue either, stating only that cities with a population of more than 10,000 and a city manager-commission form of government “shall” (must) be divided into five districts. Candidates would be required to live in the district and be voted into office only by those living in the district. Cities with a population under 10,000 “may”—not shall—be divided into districts, the law says.
The U.S. Census estimated that the population of Truth or Consequences was 5,753 as of 2019. This is the latest available figure, since 2020 municipal population data has yet to be released.
The New Mexico Municipal League states in a downloadable report, “Forms of Municipal Government,” on its website that T or C city’s manager-commission form of government is divided into districts, even though it isn’t and the city doesn’t adhere to voting by district.
Randy Van Vleck, the league’s former attorney, pointed out to the Sun two years ago that “district” isn’t defined in state law on municipalities, although it is defined under state law on counties.
In 1985, the state changed the voting law for the city manager-commission form of government. Before 1985, it said, “A commissioner shall [must] be elected for each district, but shall [must] be voted on at large.” This may partially explain how T or C arrived at its current form of at-large voting—it followed pre-1985 state law. It does not explain why the city has substituted “seats” for geographical districts.
There is a remedy, if the citizens want to change the voting system. Citizens in a community with a city manager-commission form of government have more power than those living under some other forms of municipal government.
Thus, citizens of T or C may draft a “measure” to be passed as an ordinance or new local law under state law 3-14-18. To get the measure on an election ballot, a so-called “ordinance initiative” petition drive must gather signatures totaling 20 percent of the average number of voters in the last four regular elections or 20 percent of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election—whichever number is greater.
Within 30 days after the petition is certified by the city clerk as having the required number of qualified signatures, the commission must decide what it will do. If it doesn’t approve the new ordinance—if it “fails to act,” “acts adversely” or “amends the proposed measure”–the commission must pass a resolution calling for a special election “within 10 days of the 30-day expiration,” according to state law 3-14-18.
If the commission puts forth an amended ordinance, both the petitioners’ and the commission’s ordinances must appear on the ballot, with “for” and “against” checkboxes provided after each.
A first step toward achieving the goal of electing a more broadly representative city commission would be for a nonpartisan citizen’s group to research the various forms of voting and evaluate the pros and cons of each.