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Council readies steps to repeal ranked-choice voting

The argument council members used to push repeal of ranked-choice voting was “shameful,” said Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center. “…(The) black community needs to hold them responsible for what they said today.”(Photo: Johnathan Martin)

Memphis City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to add a referendum to the next ballot in hopes of repealing instant runoff voting.

“I’m proud of my council members,” Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. said. Ford has been nothing short of vocal about repealing instant runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting.

Dozens filled the city council chambers at 125 N. Main to express their displeasure in the council’s attempt to eliminate a process which had yet to be tested.

“You were supposed to influence the council members to vote no,” Ford said. “They did the complete opposite. If they had done anything to change their minds, you would have seen anything besides a 10-to-0 vote.”

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 to 15 percent of the vote to have a chance,” Ford said.

If no one receives the majority outright, candidates are eliminated by tallying who received 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.”

The system, which was voted on nearly 10 years ago with 71 percent of voter approval, was set to be used during the next city council election in 2019. The ranked-choice voting method has been held off because Shelby County Election Commission staff previously said they were not capable of enforcing the process.

Ford said the system is confusing to use, a statement that offended several people in the audience, as they believed he was insulting their intelligence.

Some accused Ford of “research bias,” skewing collected data that “represents the few of Memphis and not the many.”

City Council Attorney Allan Wade also weighed in after constituents had their say.

“All the people commenting … are they really looking out for black people?” Wade asked, focusing on one of the reasons some cite in support of instant runoff voting – it could possibly relieve voter suppression of the poor and uneducated.

“Instant runoff don’t help black candidates win elections,” said Wade, forcing an uproar in the room with his statement.

One opponent of IRV (left) held up a sign saying “No! No! Voter Suppression!” Meanwhile, a proponent’s sign (right) read: “IRV increases the particpation and impact of all voters. Especially voters of color.” Photo: Johnathan Martin)

“If Councilman Ford and Allan Wade want to act philosophical about protecting our people, then all they did today was (be) a Trojan horse that leads us deeper into being separated from proper democracy,” said Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center.

“This was shameful and the black community needs to hold them responsible for what they said today.”

Other council members chimed in during the conversation, cementing the unanimous vote to add the referendum to the ballot.

“Let’s do away with runoffs,” Councilman Martavius Jones suggested. “If it’s about saving money, or the black vote, let’s get rid of runoffs if that’s the case.”

“I wish to be your first choice,” Councilman Frank Colvett Jr. said. “I don’t want to be your second or third choice.”

Memphis residents still have a chance to speak with their votes. The referendum will be up for a vote in November 2018.

In other action, the council:

• Delayed until its Dec. 19 meeting a vote on removing the statues of Confederate-era figures Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis from two city parks.

• Delayed the vote on allowing a landfill to be expanded near Whitney Achievement Elementary until Dec. 19.

• Set a discussion and vote on a public demonstration/parade ordinance amendment to its next reading.

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