City Council members Jamita Swearengen (left), Edmund Ford Jr. (also a a Shelby County Commissioner) and Patrice Robinson make an argument for repealing the instant runoff provision during a recent segment of the “Brian Clay Chronicles.” (Photo: George Tillman Jr.)

by Erica R. Williams
Special to The New Tri-State Defender

It’s a controversial ballot that could disqualify some voters, especially those of low socio-economic status. This is the claim asserted by a trio of elected leaders who urged voters to take a closer look at the November 6 ballot. 

“Let’s not go backwards,” Council member Edmund Ford, Jr. said to a small crowd that had gathered on a recent Thursday night for a live broadcast of the “Brian Clay Chronicles,” a local independent-run podcast.

 “We know the sacrifices that have been made for us to vote and this process would manipulate our votes.”

 The process the Shelby County Commissioner and Memphis City Council member was referring to is known as Instant Running Voting (IRV). During the podcast, Ford sat on a panel with fellow Council members, Patrice Robinson and Jamita Swearengen. 

The trio vehemently urged voters to vote, “Yes.Yes.Yes,” on next month’s ballot, relating to three critical referendums. Possibly the most controversial of the three is IRV.

“The intent of IRV is to see if the other side can move enough votes around and throw them away, so that someone who wouldn’t normally wins will win,” Ford said about the process.

Currently, Memphis voters are only allowed to select one candidate per race; but IRV would change that process, requiring voters to instead rank candidates in order of preference. 

“Someone coming in third place, could end up winning the race. This isn’t right,” Ford said. “Let the winners win, and the losers lose.”

More than 10 years ago voters approved IRV during a 2008 election, something Ford believes happened because it was looked over on the ballot. IRV was never implemented in the city because Election Commission officials said the machines couldn’t handle such balloting; but in 2016, they decided that they could make it work, slating its debut for a 2019 implementation. Unsure if it should be used at all, recently Council members approved a referendum that would repeal IRV altogether. 

Ford said, voting yes would ensure that it’s not implemented in Memphis, citing the disenfranchisement of low-income voters as the reason for its possible negative impact.

Attorney Steve Mulroy, who is at the forefront of the Save IRV campaign, disagreed with Ford’s notion. 

“It is absolutely incorrect that it can disenfranchise African American voters. In fact, it’s the opposite,” he said. 

The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, a proponent of IRV, also challenged Ford’s claim.

“I am in support of IRV because it enhances and empowers voters to choose who represents them. Historically we have had low voter turnout and IRV requires voters to go to the polls only one time,” he said. 

But Ford said IRV could cause bigger problems.

“The NAACP in Charlottesville has even likened IRV to the poll tax,” he explained. “And I’m curious to see what the other side is going to say to try to persuade people that this is good for African Americans.”

Ford added that he has empirical data that not only says IRV suppresses votes but results in votes being thrown out.

 “In the city of Sante Fe, for example, they were forced to use IRV and had a 600 percent increase in ballots being thrown out.”

But Fisher said these examples are “worst case scenarios.”

“I am after what gives the most voice to the most people,” Fisher said. “And I believe IRV does.”

Standing firm on his claim that IRV does not disenfranchise voters, Mulroy said forcing people to come back to the polls a second time marginalizes working class people. He believes IRV will save people time and the city money because voting will only take place once, as opposed to the current voting system, which requires a run-off election.

“There is data that shows that when people have to come to the polls a second time, there is a drop off of African-American voters,” Mulroy explained. “So actually, IRV will help increase voter participation in minorities.” 

But Council member Swearengen has a solution for Mulroy’s proposed issue: get rid of run-off elections completely. 

“We don’t have them for the mayoral race or super-district races, so let’s not have them for the district races,” she said. 

Doing away with the run-off elections is also a referendum on the ballot. Swearengen told voters to vote yes to repeal these elections.

Additionally, Ford, Swearengen and Robinson are urging voters to vote yes to another referendum that extends the city’s current limit of two consecutive terms for the mayor and city council members to three consecutive terms.

Although the issues are different, the three city leaders believe they have a similar objective: to disqualify the black vote. 

Voters can vote for or against all three referendums on the Nov. 6 ballot.