Yesterday, the Memphis City Council voted to place a charter amendment on the November 2018 ballot to repeal ranked choice voting (RCV, locally called "instant runoff voting") for electing most city council seats. Ignoring a remarkable show of support for RCV captured in this television news story, the council disregarded its citizens’ wishes.
The will of Memphis voters is clear. Nearly ten years ago, citizens overwhelmingly voted by 71 percent to 29 percent for a charter amendment establishing RCV. Local election officials have yet to implement RCV, but this year a new Shelby County Administrator of Elections, Linda Phillips, announced that she was ready to implement in 2019. With RCV on the cusp of its first use, the council’s action to have another referendum on the matter is a particularly stinging slap in the face to voters. Notably, the council also this week started the process to add a third term to the city’s term limits law that would affect several incumbents who otherwise will need to leave the council in 2019.
It’s easy to measure how people of Memphis support instant runoff voting. First, the charter amendment vote was overwhelming – more than seven-in-ten voters approved. Second, in recent weeks, the city council has been contacted hundreds of times with phone calls, emails and postcards by citizens who are concerned that the will of the people is being replaced with a misguided action by the city council.
For an hour at yesterday’s meeting, many members of the public faced the council, stepped up to the microphone and made their displeasure of the repeal known -- with barely anyone supporting the council.
"That was the most shameful and offensive thing I've seen in my whole life,” said Brad Watkins with Mid-South Peace and Justice.
"I'm equally concerned that the heartbeat of Memphis is on life support,” said Earle Fisher with Memphis Grassroots Organization Coalition.
"A lack of good faith on the part of our representatives,” said University of Memphis professor Steve Mulroy. These three were quoted in a news report from WMC-TV, which was among several news outlets that covered the meeting and the press conference by supporters that followed it.
Mulroy, a former Shelby County commissioner, leads Save IRV Memphis, a group of local activists and electoral reformers who believe that RCV will open up local elections, give a stronger voice to voters and ensure more fair electoral outcomes and regularly updates its growing Facebook group. Other groups supporting the effort include the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, the Memphis League of Women Voters, Shelby County Democratic Party, AFL-CIO Labor Council, Tennessee Young Democrats, Democratic Grassroots Council, Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter Memphis, Memphis ACLU, Amalgamated Transit Union, Memphis for All, University of Memphis College Democrats, Indivisible Memphis, and Together We Will West Tennessee.
By fighting this common sense reform and clinging to its current system, the city council is signaling that it’s okay with making voting more inconvenient for its citizens. When a candidate does not reach a majority in an election -- as happened in a 2015 council race -- a runoff is conducted. History has shown that there’s a tremendous dropoff in participation between the general election and the runoff. This factsheet shows just how dramatic turnout decline has been in recent runoff elections in Memphis.
Furthermore, instant runoff voting will generally save taxpayers around $250,000 each city election year. It’s been said that you might not be able to put a price on democracy, but you can put a price on wasteful decisions made by elected officials who are trying to avert the will of the people. The citizens of Memphis clearly want instant runoff voting. It’s a shame their elected leaders are turning their backs on them.