Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles highlighting election reform advocates on their achievements, background and motivation for the work they do.
Carlos Ochoa saw the Save IRV Memphis Campaign as a natural extension of his personal commitment to, in his words, “finding my voice, speaking my truth and holding space for others to do the same.”
Fresh off some heavy soul-searching prompted by a move across the country and the end of a marriage, he’d decided he was done living in a world of “false narratives and false histories.”
His personal philosophy met the need for a job when a friend offered him an opportunity to join the grassroots group fighting against repeal of ranked choice voting in Memphis. If there was ever an example of fighting falsehoods with fact, this was it.
While Ochoa had just been introduced to ranked choice voting, the people of Memphis had been waiting to see it implemented in their city for a decade, having approved the new voting method for its city elections by an overwhelming 70 percent in 2008.
When the county elections administrator declared that the city was ready to debut ranked choice ballots for its 2019 elections, logistical issues having been resolved, the city council members balked.
Threatened by the prospect of a new voting system, which would eliminate the non-majority outcomes and low turnout runoffs under which the sitting council had won office, they mounted a proposal to repeal the measure, backed by a slew of inaccurate claims about their concern for voter disenfranchisement and confusion.
“They were telling people to vote a particular way and not necessarily providing accurate information about pros and cons and putting [RCV] in context…” Ochoa said.
Complicating their endeavors was the sensitivity of the city’s racial dynamics. Many African-American council members claimed RCV disenfranchised black voters, reawakening the city’s problematic history with racial discrimination in voting.
But that didn’t stop Save IRV Memphis, which also included a strong African-American presence and backing. They fought back against accusations and misinformation with facts about the low voter turnout in runoff elections, disproportionately so in the districts with the most African-American voters. As communications coordinator, Ochoa served on the front lines of battle, helping the campaign spread the word to voters and earn media coverage.
“We were basically talking to reporters and saying like ‘have you heard what like City Council's been doing. It's really crazy. Maybe you should interview them,” Ochoa said, “That was a lot of fun…”
While Ochoa was skeptical of the “spoiler effect” some proponents of ranked choice voting use to frame their arguments, he saw the benefits for eliminating vote dilution, in which several similar candidates could split support among voters, ultimately helping someone else win.
Their efforts prevailed - though Ochoa was reluctant to credit Save IRV for the success - with voters handily defeating the repeal proposal on the November ballot.
However, legal challenges and political roadblocks continued to impede the 2019 implementation. Meanwhile, the victory in Memphis and successful ranked choice voting elections in Maine and the Bay Area sparked interest across the state, including in Nashville.
Supporting Memphis’ implementation and the prospective new city and state allies has become the focus of Ranked Choice Tennessee. A local options bill is also on the table, according to Ochoa. And after that?
In Ochoa’s words, “who knows?”
“Tennessee I feel like in some ways is the gateway to the south,” he continued. “And so if RCV prevails in Tennessee…really the sky’s the limit.”
Photo by Mikhaila Markham