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IRV Voting: What's Next for Shelby County?

Three up, three down, as they say in baseball. The City Council tried three referendums on Memphis voters in November, and struck out on all three. As we change innings, it’s a good time to reflect on what the results tell us, and who’s up next.

Upset Victory.

IRV voting works to solve the ‘winner takes all’ approach by allowing the voter to rank multiple candidates as their top choices.

IRV voting works to solve the ‘winner takes all’ approach by allowing the voter to rank multiple candidates as their top choices.

The conventional wisdom has been that low-information Memphis voters tend to default to “Yes” on referendums, so it’s easy for the Council to get things through. There’s some basis for that. Memphis voters approved a change to staggered terms for city elections in 2008. Since that would require some City Council members to shorten their terms, they placed a repeal referendum on the 2010 ballot, and the repeal passed. As recently as this August, a complicated referendum about the salaries of county officials passed decisively without much of a public education campaign. Indeed, unless a referendum would raise taxes, Memphis voters tend to support them.

Because of this, City Council members dismissed the 2008 referendum approving Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), where voters can rank their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices, saying that Memphians must not have understood what they were voting on---despite the overwhelming 71% vote in favor. They were confident that the “default to Yes” dynamic would allow them to easily repeal the 2008 votes for IRV and term limits of two terms, despite (or because of) the confusing ballot language.

This past month upended those expectations. Memphians decisively voted “No” (as shown in the sample ballots) or “Against” (as shown on the voting machines) on three separate ballot questions, despite misleading ballot language designed to bias voters toward “Yes” (or “For”).

The Fans Knew The Score.

Moreover, the “Against” vote varied significantly among the three questions, showing that voters considered each separately rather than mechanically voting “a straight ticket.” Referendum 1, extending term limits for city officials from two terms (8 years) to three (12 years), failed with 60% Against. Referendum 2, repealing IRV to return to the prior system of a second, separate “runoff” election if no candidate wins a majority, failed with 63% Against. And Referendum 3, which would have repealed IRV through the contradictory method of allowing any candidate with more votes than her competitors to win even without a majority (plurality voting), failed with 54% Against.

Interestingly, opposition to Referendum 2 was even higher than opposition to term limit extension (63% to 60%). The conventional wisdom going into November was that opponents had the best chance of defeating Referendum 1, because term limits were extremely popular and easier to understand than IRV. Term limits are indeed popular and easy to understand—but so is IRV, in light of the Referendum 2 results.

The above should give the lie to the City Council’s post-election spin, suggesting, again, that voters didn’t really understand what they were voting on. Memphians did understand IRV, and said, for a second time, that they wanted to give it a try. Nov. 6 was Memphians’ way of saying “We meant what we said the first time.”

Getting To The Playoffs.

Since Memphians have now cast intelligent votes for IRV twice over 10 years, it is time for our elected officials to give up their obstructionism and prepare for smooth IRV implementation in the next city election of October 2019. The City Council, the General Assembly, and the County Election Commission can all play a role.

State Legislature. At a minimum, state legislators should no longer try to abort Memphis home rule by introducing legislation to outlaw IRV statewide, as legislators tried in the last two legislative sessions.

Instead, they should consider “local option” legislation, allowing local governments the option of adopting IRV for nonpartisan municipal elections. (An old state law, passed before IRV was on the radar, bans “runoffs” in partisan elections. While other states allow IRV even in partisan elections, it’s fine to start with nonpartisan local elections as a beginning step.) This would be consistent with the home rule philosophy espoused by many in the legislature.

And openness to IRV is not only a progressive or Democratic thing. Indeed, deep-red Utah recently passed such local option legislation.

City Council. By the same token, the City Council should give up its efforts to lobby the state legislature to outlaw IRV, a move they quietly and hypocritically tried last spring while simultaneously arguing that we should “let the people of Memphis decide” in the November 2018 repeal referendums.

Instead, the City Council should pass implementing legislation to guide the local Election Commission on the details of IRV’s operation. County Election Administrator Linda Phillips has asked the Council for such guidance on various technical questions, such as what to do in case of ties, and whether it’s acceptable to allow voters to rank just 3 names.

While the 2008 charter amendment originally authorizing IRV should give the local Election Commission the authority it needs to resolve such questions, having the City Council weigh in would be the best result. There’s really no wrong way to answer these questions, and plenty of successful examples from other cities.

Election Commission. The local election commission’s job is both the most labor-intensive and the most straightforward. It should start a substantial public education campaign to prepare Memphis voters for the inaugural use of IRV next October. This effort should start next summer. In doing so, the election commission can partner with private groups like the League of Women Voters, Save IRV, the local political parties, and the city government to spread the word.

With local officials cooperating to respect the voters’ will rather than obstruct it, Memphis could be poised to make history as the first Southern city to implement Ranked Choice Voting. The question is: are we ready for the big leagues?


Steven Mulroy is a University of Memphis law professor and a member of the Save IRV organization. He recently released a book, Rethinking Election Law.

Robert Donati