Verónica Carbajal is taking the lessons she learned during her unsuccessful 2020 bid to become El Paso’s first Latina mayor and using them to try to change the rules surrounding city elections.

El Pasoans for Fair Elections, a specific purpose committee tied to the Justicia Fronteriza political action committee she co-founded in 2021, is putting together a petition that would force El Paso City Council to place three propositions on the November ballot that would reshape the way mayoral and city representative candidates are financed and elected.

The group aims to submit the required 11,000 petition signatures to the city clerk’s office by May 13. As of May 1, it had collected nearly 7,000 signatures.

The goal, Carbajal said, is to decrease the influence of wealthy donors — both in the election process and on municipal government decisions post-election — and to diversify the candidate pool.

“Currently, people running for City Council who want to raise money only have to go to 20 to 40 influential, very wealthy El Pasoans to get their campaigns paid for,” she said. “They don’t have to court thousands of people. All they have to do is get enough money to pay for a mailer, paid canvassers, et cetera.”

The petition includes three propositions:

  • Proposition A would limit individual campaign contributions and require contributors to disclose their place of employment, something the city would be tasked with enforcing.
  • Proposition B would establish a public financing program paid for with city funds that candidates could tap into if they agree to limit their campaign contributions and expenditures.
  • Proposition C would implement ranked-choice voting in which voters rank candidates by preference instead of selecting just their top choice.

If the clerk validates that the petition signatures are from registered voters living within El Paso city limits, the petition would go before City Council for approval. If council votes to reject or amend any part of the petition, organizers would have to re-collect 11,000 signatures — and re-submit them for validation — by Aug. 22, the deadline to place a measure on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

El Pasoans last voted for a citizen-led proposition in 2019, when close to 90% of voters who participated in the May special election approved preserving 1,000 acres of Northwest land, including Lost Dog Trailhead. The City Council initially rejected that petition by a 5-2 vote.

Verónica Carbajal is president and co-founder of Justicia Fronteriza PAC, which is organizing a petition to get local election reform measures on the ballot. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Proposed Proposition A: Campaign contribution limits

The petition would cap individual contributions at $1,000 and political action committee contributions at $5,000 for candidates running for mayor and city representative. Candidates would be restricted from spending more than $5,000 of their personal funds on their campaign. All contributors would be required to disclose their place of employment, something Texas only requires for donors to statewide offices.

Texas only has campaign contribution limits for state judicial candidates but allows political subdivisions, such as the city of El Paso, to impose their own limits. El Paso has no limits on the amount of money candidates running for city office can collect.

Not capping campaign contributions “discourages hard-working, intelligent candidates from running for office,” Carbajal said.

“People who are really ethical, who are thinking, ‘if I have to sell myself out to win, I don’t want to run. … I don’t want to then have to answer to these big-money donors. Also, I don’t want to have to fight an uphill battle with someone who’s willing to sell themselves out.’”

Though she raised the least amount of money of 2020’s four competitive mayoral candidates — who together brought in more than $943,000 — her campaign had the highest number of individual contributors, a testament she says to the work she put in connecting with voters.

“If you’re not hitting the pavement, if you’re not really doing the work and talking to constituents, you’re not going to do it when you’re elected,” she said.

Austin is one Texas city that caps campaign contributions. A single individual (which includes PACs) cannot give more than $400 to each mayoral and city council candidate. Candidates cannot raise more than $38,000 from voters outside Austin city limits.

Mayor Oscar Leeser expressed support for limiting campaign contributions when asked about the topic at a September 2020 mayoral candidate forum hosted by El Paso Matters. The mayor can only vote to break a tie, but has veto power.

“As a candidate and a former elected official, I believe that we should have a cap and I would follow the rules based on what’s set by the government, so it’s important that we do,” Leeser said.

Leeser raised more than $285,000 that election, more than a quarter of which came from contributions of $1,000 or more.

Proposed Proposition B: Public financing

Under the El Pasoans for Fair Elections’ proposition, candidates for city representative could receive $20,000 in city funds and mayoral candidates $65,000 if they agree not to raise more than a certain amount of money. The aggregate limit for representatives would be $50,000 and $150,000 for mayor. Funds from the public financing program would not count toward this total.

To qualify for public financing, candidates would need to collect signatures from 1% of registered voters in their district, or in the case of the mayor, 1% of registered voters in the city, to demonstrate that their campaigns are viable.

Austin has a public financing system limited for mayor or council candidates who make it to a runoff election. It’s an infrequently used approach, KUT reported, because many candidates don’t understand how it works or don’t want to voluntarily limit contributions if their opponent isn’t going to do the same.

Albuquerque, New Mexico has had a public financing program for mayor and city council candidates since 2007. In the 2021 municipal elections, every candidate who won relied on this funding.

Todd Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso, says that while public financing reduces the financial barriers to entry, which can increase the candidate pool, it also benefits the incumbent candidate. That’s something he’s seen in other state judicial elections that are publicly financed.

“One of the only real ways to counteract an incumbent’s natural incumbency advantage is by out-campaigning them, which is linked hand-in-hand to outspending them,” Curry said.

Verónica Carbajal asks El Paso voter Rich McCulley to sign a petition for ballot initiatives on campaign finance reform and ranked-choice voting during an Earth Day event at Lincoln Park on May 1. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Proposed Proposition C: Ranked-Choice Voting

Ranked-choice voting would offset the cost of a public financing system, Carbajal said, because it would eliminate city spending on low-turnout runoff elections, which are costly for both the city and the candidates who must continue to campaign.

In 2020, the city of El Paso spent approximately $711,500 on the December 2020 runoff election, according to city spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta. That runoff featured six undecided municipal races, including the mayor and two city representative districts. Just 54,290 people cast a ballot for mayor in the runoff, a quarter of the general election turnout for that race.

In ranked-choice voting, or “instant runoff” voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one receives a majority after the first-choice votes are counted, the person with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated and their second-choice votes are redistributed among the other candidates. The process repeats until a candidate passes the 50% plus one threshold.

According to FairVote, a nonpartisan election reform organization, 25 U.S. jurisdictions use this method, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, New York City, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.

Austin became the first Texas city to approve ranked-choice voting in May 2021 but has yet to implement it.

Austin’s legal team has said doing so would be against state law, per a 2001 opinion from then-Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar, who argued that preferential votes do not count toward the “majority” of votes the Texas Election Code stipulates that candidates must receive. A subsequent 2003 Texas attorney general’s opinion affirmed that ranked-choice voting is not allowed under state law.

Carbajal, however, notes that these opinions are non-legally binding and that the legality of ranked-choice voting has never been tested in Texas courts.

Ranked-choice voting, she said, allows voters to “take risk on someone who doesn’t have big money behind them, who’s not on TV 24/7, but who (they) think is the best candidate, who will be the best public servant.” 

That risk can benefit candidates, Curry said, but requires voters to know more about the candidates on the ballot.

“I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing,” he said, “but that burden will be borne by the voters and it’s really up to the candidates themselves to bridge that gap.”

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.