The Memphis City Council thinks the City’s voters are just so dumb.
Ten years ago, the fine people of Memphis voted to end runoff elections using a neat little system called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV does away with costly (around $250,000) and poorly attended runoff elections (6% of registered voters in 2015) by letting voters rank their choices. If no one gets a straight majority, the vote counters take the second choice of the folks who voted for the candidate with the fewest votes. This continues until someone gets a majority of the vote. Simple enough right?
Even though 71% of voters in 2008 understood this change enough to vote for it, the Council thinks people were confused. Nine Council members think folks just didn’t understand what they were doing and need another chance to preserve the system that got five of those nine elected.
Why did they do this? There are a lot of possible reasons, but its safe to say most of them involve self-interest. Lets dive in to some of the false narratives, misconceptions, and bad legal advice that led to this vote, shall we?
History of IRV in Memphis
Memphis voters approved IRV in 2008. 71% of voters in favored the Charter Amendment. The amendment passed even though there was a concerted effort by local political parties to, at the very least, muddy the waters for voters. In one case, there was real skullduggery involved.
There was a real education campaign on the ground that led to this result. A whole lot of people spent a ton of time talking to voters about what IRV is. In all honesty, I don’t remember seeing such a comprehensive effort on a ballot measure before or since. That work paid off at the ballot box.
“If Memphis has had IRV since 2008, why don’t I remember ever voting that way”, I hear you ask.
Well, that’s because the former Elections Coordinator, Richard Holden, said our voting machines just couldn’t handle it. This, of course, was bullshit. There are places around the country who use the same machines we do, and they get IRV done without issues. You may remember, Holden is the guy who screwed up the August 2012 election so bad, even Republicans noticed.
Holden retired in 2015. He was replaced by current administrator Linda Phillips. Phillips announced in a recent article that IRV would be implemented in the 2019 City election.
So now that IRV looks like a real possibility on the horizon, some City Council members appear to be more than a little worried…will of the people be damned.
Runoff Elections Disenfranchise Minority Voters
Its been known for a very long time that runoff elections disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
In fact, the reason we have the bizarre district system we have in Memphis is because of a lawsuit filed in the 80’s. The lawsuit was filed because even though the City had a majority-minority population, only 3 of the 13 members of the Council were African-American.
How did that happen?
Well, low turnout runoff elections ultimately decided the contests. In some cases, African-American candidates who won the most votes in the General Election lost the runoff.
“Isn’t that the will of the people?”, I hear you ask.
See, Federal Courts have found, time and time again, that minority voters have more barriers to participating in runoff elections. Maybe its work related. Maybe its just not knowing when the election will be. But for some reason, there’s a long history of white or wealthy candidates winning low turnout runoff elections.
So, in 1991, Federal Judge Jerome Turner ruled that the City’s runoff elections disenfranchised minority voters, violating federal law. Turner, unlike judges in other areas, let the Council decide how they would fix the problem. That led to the system we’ve used since 1995. You can read more about it here. Be sure to read the comments. There’s a great one from Shep Wilburn who had a “behind the scenes” look at how this all went down.
IRV alleviates this issue. It gives voters the chance to rank their choices by preference so, even if no one wins an outright majority with the first count, someone will. All this happens without the need to come back to the polls.
Knocking Down Straw Men
The campaign against IRV is chock full of bullshit arguments and half-assed hypotheticals. I’m going to try to address some of them here.
Friday, Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. wrote a guest column in the Commercial Appeal calling IRV a “failed experiment”.
IRV hasn’t failed because its never been implemented. That small detail aside, Ford uses some straw man rhetoric to prove his point.
Ford cites a study that says minority voters are disenfranchised by IRV. He even cites two sources supporting his claim. Unfortunately, there are some flaws in those sources, as set forth in in this 2016 report it is noted that the sources Ford cites don’t compare IRV to the previous voting method:
Ultimately, the impact of RCV on voter participation is a researchable question. However, much of the existing research examines RCV elections in isolated case studies. To assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of new voting rules, it is important to compare the performance of the new system to the old system it is replacing.
I’m not going to get too far into the weeds with Ford. He’s made up his mind. Before you make up your mind you should also read this column by former County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, this one from SCDP Chair, Cory Strong, and this one from Sylvia Cox and George Brown.
Let the voters decide…again
So the City Council thinks we need to vote on this again because we were too dumb the first time.
Fine. Lets prove them wrong.
Unfortunately, even if IRV survives the 2018 vote, it may delay the implementation for another four years. This would give City Council Attorney Alan Wade another chance to redistrict the Council in secret…which is probably what the folks REALLY behind this effort want anyway.
We’ve got to prove them wrong, then march our happy asses down to the election commission to demand they implement IRV by the October 2019 election, so we can make our voices heard by voting this council out of office.