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Charter Vote Slow Down Pace at Polls

Alex Doniach // Published November 2, 2008 in Memphis Commercial Appeal
The hotly contested presidential race drew a record number of early voters to the polls this year. But it is the set of Memphis and Shelby County charter amendments on the ballot that could have a greater local impact. And they definitely bear some blame for the long waits during early voting. Shelby County Election administrator James Johnson said it took the average city voter five to six minutes to complete the ballot, with a few speedier exceptions. The eight city charter amendments mean city voters took longer to cast their ballots than those in the county.

Election commissioners agreed last week to add voting machines in some precincts for Tuesday's elections, especially in the city. "County voters will flow a lot quicker than city voters," said Election Commission Chairwoman Myra Stiles. Community leaders are stressing the importance of reading up on the 10 proposed city and county charter amendments before stepping into the polling booth. Cardell Orrin, a member of Change Memphis, a coalition hoping to educate voters on the city and county charter amendments, said some of the proposed changes can confuse an unfamiliar voter. He said, for example, that in some community forums, voters had questions about the ballot measure approving instant runoff voting.

But once explained, Orrin said voters developed a good idea of instant runoffs, a system where voters rank candidates in order of preference, deciding the outcomes of certain races instantly. Calling it "fundamental election reform," County Commissioner Steve Mulroy said instant runoff voting has, in other cities, led to more positive campaigning as candidates focus on selling themselves as voters' first and second choices. The elimination of a runoff election would also save the city $250,000 a year, he said. Orrin said all of the amendments are worth research. The questions are so long and sometimes so confusingly worded that even Orrin found himself double-checking. "I can only imagine how daunting it would be if you were seeing it for the first time," he said.

Proposed City Charter Amendments
Staggered terms: 2011 elections for single-member council districts would be for a one-year term; elections for super districts, mayor and city court clerk would be for three years. Elections in 2014 would be for four-year terms across the board.
Term limits: The mayor, council members and city court clerk would serve two back-to-back, four-year terms, effective after staggered terms kick in.
Mayoral vacancies: If the mayor resigns or can no longer serve, the council chairman would act as mayor.
Suspension from duties:
Elected or appointed officials charged or indicted for an ethical or legal violation or misconduct would be suspended, with pay, until the charges are resolved.
Sale of MLGW: Approval by voters must be granted before any proposed sale of the utility.
Instant runoff elections: Voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate gains a majority of the votes, he or she wins. If not, the winner would be chosen based on a formula applied to voters' rankings.
City residency: All appointed city employees must live inside city limits.
City Council recall: Allows voters to recall council members through petition.

Proposed Shelby County Charter Amendments
Offices: Establishes the constitutionality of five elected county offices -- sheriff, trustee, clerk, assessor and register.
Term limits: Limits those five offices to two four-year terms.