When Memphis City Council members meet on Tuesday, the work before them will include consideration of a proposed referendum to derail a change in the way councilmembers are elected.
The City of Memphis is on course to try Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for the first time in 2019. At the last council meeting, District 6 Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. successfully garnered unanimous approval of a resolution that steps the council toward allowing voters to decide whether they prefer traditional voting or the ranked choice system.
The first reading of proposed referendum to put the matter before voters is set for the Oct. 31 meeting. Passage on three readings is required to officially open the door of reconsideration.
“I’m not going to support any system that takes the power out of the voters hand and puts a computer in control,” Ford said.
With ranked choice voting, voters must choose their first, second or third choice – depending on how many people are on the ballot. After final calculations, the candidate with more “choice” votes could defeat an opponent who was ultimately a first pick.
“I think it’s more about putting a mechanism in place for individuals who get 13 percent-15 percent of the vote to have a chance,” Ford said.
If no candidate receives the majority outright, candidates are eliminated by receiving the lowest number of first-place votes. That same candidate’s first place votes are not redistributed to the voter’s second choice. The process continues until someone wins. If the voter’s top three candidates are all disqualified, the vote is considered “exhausted” – and thrown out.
“I don’t know if I can go back and tell my constituents, ‘Well, you know, the person in fourth place ended up winning the election,’” Ford said. “I think it’s going to be a big disenfranchisement of voters despite their socioeconomic status.”
Ford told The New Tri-State Defender that he and his colleagues did a trial run of the system with the Shelby County Election Commission.
“I saw that several of my colleagues were confused and frustrated about the integrity of the voting process,” said Ford, who sees the IRV system helping candidates who have a low percentage of the vote feel as if they have a chance to win.
Other council members agree with him.
“One man, one vote” was District 3 Councilwoman Patrice Robinson’s take on the issue. Robinson, although open to voting changes, does not believe IRV is an effective way.
“We can’t count the votes we have now,” Robinson said, openly worried about possible errors.
Council Chairman Berlin Boyd (District 7) called ranked choice voting “confusing” and said it would not help with the current high levels of voter apathy.
University of Memphis Law professor Steve Mulroy is among those to give IRV a chance. He notes that 71 percent of Memphis voters chose to go that route when the measure was put before voters in a 2008 referendum.
“Now that we’re finally going to give it a try … city council is trying to stop it,” said Mulroy, who asserts that derailing IRV would “eventually be diluting minority voting strength.”
Mulroy and IRV supporters such as state Rep. Johnnie R. Turner (District 85) assert that the IRV approach will boost overall voter turnout. During the Oct. 17 city council meeting, representatives from other states where ranked choice voting is in place detailed how the system ushered in time and cost-saving benefits.
“Everywhere it’s been used, people say it’s not confusing. It saves money everywhere it’s been used, the people say they wanted it – there’s really no reason not to try it,” Mulroy said. “If it doesn’t work, then let’s talk repeal.”
Ford plans to hit the talk-show circuit to discuss his battle to repeal IRV.
“I plan on winning this fight. I plan on bringing this to the people who don’t have any clue how this works.”
Toward that end, Ford said he soon would join with Robinson to host a meeting that would bring their constituents together to get up to speed on IRV and the need to derail it.