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Instant Runoff Voting – Is it really in Memphis’ future?

There is little the Memphis City Council can do to stand in the way of instant runoff voting in the wake of Tuesday’s resounding defeat of efforts to abolish the ordinance, according to former Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery.

Lowery, the council’s chairmen emeritus, chaired the Memphis Charter Review Commission that voted to put the voting process on the ballot. It was first approved by voters in 2008, but has not been implemented yet. On Wednesday, Lowery said he thinks the city council is out of options on stopping the measure.

“I don’t see another way they (city council) can block it,” Lowery said. The council could take the matter to court but Lowery thinks a judge would be “hard pressed” to rule against something that has been twice approved by the voters.

A proposal to repeal instant runoff voting was one of three questions defeated on Tuesday’s ballot. Another would have done away with runoffs altogether and a third would have extended term limits for mayor and council members from two to three terms.

Michael Sances, professor of political science at the University of Memphis, agreed with Lowery.

“Basically the voters have said for the second time they want instant runoff voting,” Sances said. “They may try and find some way to delay it or block it, but it’s not clear they can do anything.”

Under the instant runoff voting system, voters list their top candidates by preference. A process of elimination is used where no separate runoff election is needed to select a winner.

“The next city council election, they’re ready to deploy this,” Sances said.

However, City Council Chairman Berlin Boyd issued a statement late Wednesday that said “a lot of outside money” was involved in this year’s campaign involving the ballot referendum items and added, “city government scrambled to compete.

“There remains significant misinformation about IRV implementation, and soon enough, Memphians will see and feel the local impact,” Boyd said in his statement.

Earlier, Boyd said there are a number of issues with instant runoff voting that have to be ironed out before anything else can happen.

“Right now the legality of it is questionable,” Boyd said in a telephone interview with The New Tri-State Defender. “I don’t think we’ll see it in Memphis anytime soon.

“I and my colleagues are still taking this all in, we’re still evaluating it and seeing what the best step for this city is,” he said.

Boyd said he is especially concerned about the way the measure was worded on the ballot in 2008. He said it could have been confusing to some voters. Similar complaints were voiced about the question on this year’s ballot.

Boyd said the state coordinator of elections has not signed off on instant runoff voting and it has not been used anywhere else in Tennessee.

He said there also is the expense of buying new voting machines to consider and the cost of an education campaign to make sure voters know how to use the system.

Linda Phillips, administrator of elections at the Shelby County Election Commission, said in a statement that there are legal and practical considerations that have to be settled before instant runoff voting can go forward.

“Mark Goins, state coordinator of elections, has indicated that he believes that it might not be in keeping with state law so we have requested a legal opinion in that regard,” the statement read.

Phillips said there are also other “unknowns” that have to be decided by a legislative body, things like what to do if someone skips a spot on their list of preferences and how many candidates to include on a list for consideration.

Phillips has said in the past that the process is doable and there are plans to implement IRV in 2019 for the seven, single-member-district City Council races, which currently use traditional runoff elections.

Keith Boring, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said it would be inappropriate to comment on instant runoff voting at this time “due to pending legal issues.”  He would not say what issue.

Instant runoff voting is used in at least 11 cities, including Minneapolis, San Francisco and Oakland. Maine recently voted by referendum to adopt it statewide for governor, congressional and state legislative elections.

Looking at Tuesday’s election from a broader perspective, Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Corey Strong said Democrats produced a significant turnout for candidates Phil Bredesen for the U.S. Senate and Karl Dean for governor. Bredesen lost to Seventh District Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and Dean to businessman Bill Lee.

Strong said he was “inspired and invigorated” by increased participation among Democratic Party voters in Shelby County this election season.

“Although the outcome didn’t go in our favor, our impact on Shelby County continued to be evident,” Strong said. “We’ve built a significant foundation to stand on for future elections.”

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