Back in 2008, the Memphis chapter of the NAACP got behind instant runoff voting for city elections. As America was on the brink of electing its first African-American president with the largest voter turnout in U.S. history, the idea was to capture the will of voters on their first visit to the polls instead of risking low turnout in a runoff.
But times change. Membership changes. And after a spirited Thanksgiving-weekend debate on whether the process would benefit Memphis voters, the Memphis NAACP has changed course, now advocating against “ranked voting.”
“This is a whole different NAACP membership than it was nine years ago,” said Deidre Malone, president of the executive committee. “We are well within our rights to change our minds again later, but we don’t think it would be wise to implement IRV at this time.”
Memphis voters approved IRV in 2008 for single-member City Council elections, but the initiative has yet to be implemented. As currently constructed, IRV would not apply to other city elections, including mayor. The City Charter says that IRV must be implemented “unless the Election Commission certifies that voting machine limitations make its implementation in time for that election unfeasible.”
The Memphis City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to proceed with a public referendum to repeal instant runoff voting. If a referendum is approved, Malone expects Memphians would vote on the measure in 2018. But if nothing changes, IRV will go into effect for the 2019 election season.
In instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates as first, second or third choices. If the initial ballot doesn’t yield a clear victor, those rankings are tallied to break the tie. In theory, it saves money by avoiding the cost of operating a runoff election. Advocates also believe it offsets the relative lack of voter turnout in runoff elections, which tends to plummet after the initial election. But opponents fear the process could confuse voters.
All of those issues came up during a panel discussion at the Memphis NAACP General Board meeting on Nov. 25. Panelists included Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr., who thinks IRV should be repealed; and State Rep. Johnnie Turner who argued against repealing IRV. Turner served as executive director of the Memphis NAACP during the 2008 IRV referendum.
“A runoff may not be perfect, but it was an improvement over what the charter council is trying to place in front of voters in 2019,” Ford said in his opening remarks. “I don’t think we have a broken system. Historically, we’ve been able to increase the number of African Americans on the (City) Council, and we were able to elect Dr. Willie W. Herenton as our first elected African-American mayor in 1991. So I see progression. And I don’t want to see us going backward.”
In her opening remarks, Turner said that while the 2015 municipal elections generated a 28 percent voter turnout rate, only five percent of voters participated in the runoff. And while Turner conceded that the cost of voter education could be as much as $300,000, she said those costs would decline as voters get acclimated. Turner believes capturing the choice of voters on the initial ballot is the best way to make sure their voices are heard.
“More of the voters are involved in the process — especially African Americans and the poor,” Turner said. “We have maps that show the more affluent the neighborhood is, the greater the voter turnout.
“The Democratic process is at its best (with more voter participation),” Turner continued. “What is our goal? To get everybody registered and to get everybody to the polls. With instant runoff voting, we’ll have 100 percent participation (in runoffs). That, ladies and gentlemen, is democracy at its best.”
Rounding out the panel was The Rev. Dr. Nekima Levy-Pounds, an African-American woman who lost her bid for Mayor of Minneapolis in November. Under Minneapolis’ “ranked choice voting,” the former president of the Minneapolis NAACP came in fifth place in the mayoral election. Citing her hometown’s demographics at “40 percent people of color,” she said ranked choice voting helped put African Americans on the Minneapolis City Council.
“We saw ranked choice voting help unseat two incumbents who were not working on behalf of the people,” Levy-Pounds said. “One was a Caucasian woman whose family had held that seat for 40 years. The other was an Asian-American lawyer who wasn’t voting on behalf of the people of Ward 4 and Ward 5, which is largely African American.
“And so ranked choice voting was used in a way to unseat those two incumbents who have been replaced by African-American candidates,” she added. “That’s how we’ve seen it work for us in Minneapolis.”
But Note Levy-Pounds’ choice of words: “people of color.” According to 2016 data at Census.gov, about 63 percent of that city’s population is white; about 18 percent is African American, with other ethnicities making up the difference.
Contrast that with Memphis and it’s 65 percent African-American population, and the question comes up: Does instant runoff voting work in a majority African American city? There’s simply no way to know, because none of the other cities that use IRV share Memphis’ demographic makeup.
“People have mentioned Oakland, California as an example,” Malone said. “Well, back in 1980, Oakland was 47 percent black. Now? Oakland is not even 25 percent black. There’s no other majority African-American city we can look at and see if this is working.”
Opponents and proponents of IRV agree that implementing the process could be costly — mostly because of voter education efforts to teach voters how to cast their ballots, but also to explain what a “yes” or “no” vote on an IRV referendum would mean. However, IRV proponents say those costs diminish as voters learn the new system.
“But it doesn’t look like we’ve planned for (voter education in the next election cycle),” Malone said. “At some point, (IRV education) it may be cost-neutral. But at this point, it’s not.”
Malone said that the National NAACP does not have a position on instant runoff voting, and leaves the matter to local chapters to decide. Meanwhile, the Shelby County Democratic Party recently voted to support instant runoff voting.
While Malone understands pro-IRV arguments, it’s the “law of unintended consequences” that concerns her. She used a colorful character who frequently runs for office in Memphis to illustrate the point.
“Let’s say (Candidate A) is my first choice and (Candidate B) is my second choice,” Malone said. “And I say to myself, ‘One of those two will get it.’ So, just for fun, I make Prince Mongo my third choice. Well, if enough people with a sense of humor vote that way, there’s a scenario where Mongo wins the election.
“But,” she concluded, “does that reflect the will of the people?”