November 30, 2017
By John Marek, guest columnist
In 2008, 71 percent of Memphis voters agreed by referendum to rid ourselves of expensive low-turnout runoff elections through instant runoff voting (IRV). If implemented, this would save taxpayers $250,000 a year, and it would end run-off elections with as much as an 85 percent turnout drop-off from the general election.
Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference as opposed to only being able to vote for one candidate. Once the votes are tallied, if no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The votes of the eliminated candidate would then be transferred to those citizens’ second choice for the seat. The votes are then re-tallied, and this process continues until a candidate has a majority of the votes, hence no need for the costly and mostly ignored runoff.
IRV has been implemented in 11 cities. Where IRV has been used, it has resulted in the election of more minority and female candidates—but only candidates supported by a majority of a district’s voters. It has also led to more positive campaigning. If you’re an IRV candidate, you want to be the first choice of your base and the second choice of your rival’s base. Thus, you don’t want to do attack-ad, mudslinging campaigns. As a former council candidate myself, I can tell you that our city’s elections would benefit from candidates having to not only garner their own base, but also get along well with their opposition.
IRV also increases opportunities for first-time, lesser-funded, lesser-known candidates. You don’t have to worry about “throwing away your vote” on a favorite underdog; you can rank the underdog first, and a “safer,” more established candidate second.
Why was the will of Memphis voters ignored until possibly now? Election Commissioners and others on the state level claimed that the “touch-screen” voting machines were not capable of allowing instant runoff voting, even though that was not actually the case. Recently hired county election administrator Linda Phillip has recognized IRV can be done with our current machines, and she plans to implement IRV in 2019 for the seven single-member-district City Council races.
Now that the election commission has become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, incumbents worried about how IRV will affect the status quo are attempting to put their concerns in front of the concerns of Memphis voters by forcing an already debated and decided issue back onto the ballot. Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. and other elected officials are attempting to end IRV before voters even get a chance to use the method that they overwhelmingly supported in 2008.
Well-funded interest groups contribute heavily to candidates, and these groups are able to buy local elections for much cheaper than they are able to buy state and federal seats because of the low turnout. It should come as no surprise that workers’ rights and labor interests have faded in influence over the past 40 years. While much attention has been given to the buying of elections on the state and federal level, it is rarely discussed on the local level. Special interests like Wall Street don’t stop at Congress; they go after local government control as well.
The Memphis City Council really has no business interfering with a process already chosen by the voters in 2008, and it is an attack on democracy and Memphians’ rights that IRV was not available during the 2011 or 2015 elections. Let us come together and demand that IRV be implemented in 2019.
In the wake of Citizens United v. FEC and numerous restrictive voter ID laws that were passed across the country, elections are being bought and votes are being suppressed. The affront to IRV is no different except for the fact that we can actually do something about it since it is a local issue. IRV provides a more democratic system that will more truly represent the will of our city’s voters at a much cheaper rate.
For more information, please visit saveirvmemphis.com. Please email the entire council at IRV@saveirvmemphis.com, and ask them to respect the will of the voters and vote no on repeal.
John Marek is is a Memphis attorney, local activist, and former campaign manager for Congressman Steve Cohen.