Lloyd Brown
Lloyd Brown

Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr. wrote in this paper last week that he believes special interests controlled last November’s Memphis referendum election.  He contends – without any evidence – that if you voted against the referendums that you, yes you, were “bought and sold.”  

This is insulting to the 63 percent of Memphis voters who voted against his amendment to repeal instant runoff voting (IRV), and the many Memphians who volunteered or donated to our campaign – a grassroots effort which came together long before it ever received any grants from national election reform organizations. 

Ford lobs plenty of hollow attacks at Save IRV Inc., but he omits the glaring lack of transparency in the $40,000 taxpayer-funded referendum campaign waged by the City Council, passed without any notice or opportunity for public comment. He refers to a complaint against Save IRV without mentioning it was dismissed, and he omits that voters (including black voters) overwhelmingly chose to keep IRV and reject the City Council’s attempt to extend their own term limits.

You deserve the real facts. 

Save IRV Inc. is a registered 501c(4) organization dedicated to voter education, particularly in reference to IRV. The organization is run by locals and was careful to spend as much money as possible with local businesses and union labor. 

They had over 100 local donors and volunteers. Since IRV and term limits are part of a national election reform movement, they also received several large grants and assistance from national election reform organizations, including organizations focused on empowering traditionally marginalized racial and ethnic groups. They had total autonomy over the use of these funds.

Here’s why they needed to seek out large grants for this campaign: you do not fight fire with hot sauce. The City Council steamrolled over public opinion, ignored constituents, used city resources to push their repeal agenda in mass emails and town hall meetings, refused to grant equal time at these townhalls, and defied public will by forcing Memphians to revote an issue on which they had already voted. Save IRV Inc. raised money to fight back.

Ford suggests that, since many of the donors were white, they couldn’t have the interests of black voters at heart. He neglects to mention that Save IRV’s board is majority African-American, including City Council Chair Emeritus Myron Lowery, Pastor Earle Fisher and the Rev. Rosalyn Nichols.  Many prominent African-Americans and organizations endorsed their position.  (See http://saveirvmemphis.com/endorsements for a full list.) Indeed, the campaign was the only truly diverse one involved in the referendums and the only one which brought its message to all parts of Memphis without racial targeting.  

The City Council’s entire campaign was funded with your tax dollars. Once the council had voted to place the referendums on the ballot, ostensibly to give voters another chance to weigh in on the issue, they paid a lobbying firm to try to get IRV outlawed statewide.

Let that sink in a minute. The City Council tried to get the state legislature to make illegal the very form of voting for which Memphians had already voted – which would have rendered moot the whole November 2018 repeal referendum election they forced on us. After that initiative failed, various Council members started using taxpayer-funded townhall events to give one-sided presentations against IRV.

Lastly, and I’m sure you’ve heard about this one, the council used your tax dollars – again – to pay for advertisements, poll workers, T-shirts, and push cards to try to convince you to vote for the referendums, one of which would have allowed them to stay in office an additional four years. 

There’s plenty to question in those expenditures, including the timing of their filing, their decision to pass the money through a local PR firm and PAC so that advertisements wouldn’t disclose the true source of the money,  the fact that the expenses cover times during a court-ordered injunction, and the fact that the expenses covered begin on a date before the resolution was even passed by the Council.

I trust that if you voted in the last election it was out of your own conviction and that because you were not “bought and sold.” It is sad that current elected officials would compare voters to pawns in a chess game. 

It is time for all elected officials to listen to what voters have said twice now. They should stop obstructing and start facilitating the will of voters. 

What we need now is a thorough voter education effort, to make sure that all Memphis voters will be ready to intelligently cast their ballots this October. Save IRV stands ready to help with this, to cooperate with the City Council, the Election Commission, the League of Women Voters, the local NAACP, and any other organization interested in making sure that all voters will have their votes count.

 (Lloyd Brown served as a volunteer for Save IRV, Inc. and hosted the IRV debate on his radio show, “The Undisputed Truth.”  He is a nationally published writer and served as city editor for Chicago’s Citizen News Group and as associate editor of the Kappa Alpha Psi Journal. Brown was a professor of finance for Texas A&M  University,  San Antonio, before his retirement last year.)