Analysis: T or C’s voting system for city commissioners preserves status quo leadership

by Kathleen Sloan | October 4, 2021
7 min read
Source: freepik

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.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

4 thoughts on “Analysis: T or C’s voting system for city commissioners preserves status quo leadership”

  1. I have, for years, suggested an “at-large” voting system (but with one difference from your suggestion) and that only one vote per voter should be cast for the “Office of City Commissioner.” In any other legislative election system voters do not choose multiple candidates. The elimination of the dominant voter bloc would be accomplished if each voter had to choose the “one best” candidate from a single pool of candidates, just as happens with proper “district” elections by district voters. This form of voting would have nothing to do with the number of seats/positions available. I also think that a candidate called “None of the Above” could produce a much-needed change to the current paradigm.

  2. Thanks for this, Ms. Sloan. Good article and we certainly need voting changes. Districts would be nice for county commissioner voting. And the city needs to upgrade their voting system, too. Let’s exercise democracy.

  3. I agree. Change would be good and either district voting or one vote for one member of a pool of candidates would be more democratic. Let’s choose and get a petition going!

  4. Single-member districts and one vote for the best candidate are needed to represent the will of the people, especially for those voices that may have been marginalized. Time to change it up! Thank you, Ms. Sloan, for your excellent coverage concerning city governance .

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