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VOL. 10 | NO. 50 | Saturday, December 9, 2017

Editorial: The Fine Print And Timing Of Letting The People Decide

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As candidates start to fill in slots on the first of three elections in Shelby County next year, political decisions are being made about what else will appear on the ballot for the county general election in November.

Such votes aren’t about choosing who will fill an office; instead, they’re referendums on issues that affect all of us, and your only choices are yes or no.

2018 likely will be the year of ranked-choice voting, extended term limits and possibly some kind of tax hike to fund prekindergarten and/or better fund the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s bus system.

But before those issues are programmed into a touchscreen ballot, Memphis leaders face the critical task of how to frame them into an up-or-down vote. The result, if past referendums are any indication, probably will include hopelessly complex wording and not live up to their billing as a direct democratic experience.

Ranked-choice voting, which eliminates runoff elections by allowing voters to mark a second and third preference on their ballot, hasn’t drawn a consensus among local leaders. In fact, there’s probably more agreement that runoffs distort the electoral process than there is about how to fix it.

If RCV’s advantage is that it eliminates runoffs, why not go ahead and abolish what’s left of the runoff provision in local politics? As it stands now, it only applies to seven of the 13 Memphis City Council positions.

For all of the electoral contortions over ranked-choice voting, the message from some city and county elected leaders is all too clear when it comes to money and term limits. And their political ability on those matters is much more evident and less ham-handed.

The proposed ballot question on extending city government term limits from two to three consecutive terms, which cleared the first of three City Council readings Dec. 5, is precise in its mechanics. Its timing is direct, coming the year before an election in which six city council members would otherwise be unable to seek re-election. Don’t be surprised if there is a move to extend county government’s term limits from two terms to three very soon.

Elected leaders are fond of the refrain “Let the voters decide,” but they don’t make it easy for voters to understand what they’re deciding. How Machiavellian.

We understand referendums often are complex, but many times they’re unnecessarily obtuse in their wording. They should be explained on the ballot in clear, concise terms and labeled with easy-to-understand titles (like, say, “term limits”) instead of numerals.

Voters, you have a responsibility here, too. We know you’re often in a hurry. Perhaps you’re frustrated because you had to wait in line to vote. By the time you get to the referendums at the end of the ballot, you’re ready to cast your vote and get on with your day.

But the fine print matters here. Take the time to read what you’re voting for or against.

PROPERTY SALES 74 74 17,458
MORTGAGES 93 93 20,128
BUILDING PERMITS 126 126 36,072
BANKRUPTCIES 63 63 11,227