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VOL. 132 | NO. 242 | Thursday, December 7, 2017

RCV Goes To Ballot, Term-Limit Change May Join It

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Council members gave final approval Tuesday, Dec. 5, to a November 2018 referendum that would repeal the use of ranked-choice voting (RCV) in some city council races starting with 2019 city elections.

Council member Bill Morrison, right, with council chairman Berlin Boyd, is sponsoring the move to the ballot to extend term limits in the city charter, saying it takes three terms for a council member to be effective. The referendum ordinance passed Tuesday on the first of three readings. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

It also approved on the first of three readings another referendum for the November ballot that would extend the current limit of two consecutive terms of office for council members and the mayor to a three-term limit starting with the 2019 elections.

The final vote on the RCV ballot question was opposed by a vocal presence at City Hall.

RCV lets voters indicate a second and third preference in a race. If no candidate gets a majority in the initial vote count, the other preferences come into play as the candidates with the lowest first choice vote counts are eliminated until someone get a majority of votes. That second vote count of the same ballots would replace a runoff.

“I’m here to ask you to not disenfranchise me, not to disenfranchise the vote I already made,” said Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, referring to the 2008 charter amendment referendum that make RCV part of the charter. “If this is how you protect my vote, don’t love me so much.”

Watkins said undoing the previous referendum with another makes the original referendum “a very expensive exit poll.” Other critics questioned the motives of the current council as political “gatekeepers.”

Veteran Democratic politico Del Gill, however, argued that voters weren’t focused on one in a set of city charter amendments in 2008 when the presidential race won by Barack Obama was at the top of the ballot.

“In 2008, most of us were busy that night with ‘Yes, you can’ and nobody noticed those things at the bottom of the list,” he said. “What’s to fear? This is the democratic republic process at work. Put it back on the ballot and let people have the chance.”

Sam Goff, who is a candidate for Shelby County Commission next year, had the same question as Gill but with a different perspective.

“What’s to fear?” he asked, speaking immediately after Gill. “A failed experiment can’t fail if it’s not been tried. We have not had an opportunity to see if this works for Memphis.”

Council attorney Allan Wade questioned the motives of those who say ranked-choice voting would undo the dilution of black voting power they attribute to runoff elections. Wade made his point by recalling the 1991 federal lawsuit that ended runoff elections in the mayor’s race and abolished citywide city council seats – a case he was involved in.

“This is not a civil rights issue,” he said. “The civil rights issue was decided when (federal) Judge Jerome Turner entered a consent decree reconstructing our entire electoral system.”

Before those changes, Wade said white politicos would flood races with a strong black candidate guaranteeing the race would go to a runoff that a white candidate could win.

He pointed to the 1982 special election for mayor. J.O. Patterson Jr., a black city council member and the interim mayor, finished first in that election, ahead of Dick Hackett, the white contender. In the runoff that followed Hackett won.

Without the runoff provision, Willie Herenton became the city’s first elected African-American mayor in a 142-vote victory over Hackett in 1991.

“The issue was how to prevent voter dilution,” Wade said. “The way that was done at the council level, the decree required seven of the council members on this council would be elected from districts that had greater than 68 percent African-American population.”

Wade said it’s no coincidence that since that happened the council has had a majority of seven African-American members compared to a white majority of seven before the decree.

“My point is, who are you protecting? The system protects African-American voters,” he said. “(RCV) is not going to help black voters. They are already protected by the system – period, end of story.”

Wade was jeered heavily by the crowd as council chairman Berlin Boyd warned he would have police restore order.

Wade then said a system of second and third choices on the same ballot could lead to another form of crowding a race.

“We would be right back to where we were in 1982,” he said. “I just have to point that out to this body. I’m concerned that is a clear possibility.”

Wade also suggested a direct attack on what remains of the runoff provision in the seven single-member council districts.

“You can eliminate runoffs completely,” he said. “Take them out. Don’t even get into this. Let’s just go straight up and let the best person win.”

Meanwhile, council member Bill Morrison, the sponsor of the term-limits extension referendum question, confirmed Tuesday that if the expansion of term limits goes on the ballot in November and if voters approve it, it would apply to six current council members who are currently serving their second consecutive term of office. That would mean they could seek a third term of office in the 2019 elections.

“This is about service,” Morrison said in making his case at the council executive session, citing eight years of work on a Raleigh Town Center on the site of the old Raleigh Springs Mall. The town center project broke ground last Saturday.

“Had I been term-limited, this would have died before Raleigh even had a chance to get it,” Morrison said. “Nothing binds the next council to get anything done.”

Morrison’s rationale is a common lament of city council members and county commissioners who find a four-year term moves quickly.

“You spend your first term learning the budget, relationships, building a rapport with the administration, learning your district where everyone probably didn’t vote for you,” he said. “So you try to build those bridges and learn how to do the job. Then you are running for re-election. … Eight years to me is simply not enough to be effective to serve the constituents. … Should there be term limits? Yes. I think 12 years works perfectly fine.”

The wording of the referendum ordinance changed from its initial draft to extend the limit of two consecutive terms on the mayor’s office to permit a mayor to serve three terms.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland reacted to the change by saying he has no intention of serving more than two terms even if the extension is approved by voters.

“I respect whatever decision the council makes, but my record on this has been clear: I voted for the two-term limit at the ballot box, and I would only serve two terms at most as mayor even if the council and citizens vote for this change,” Strickland said in a written statement.

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