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VOL. 132 | NO. 143 | Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mock Election In ‘19 Could Test Ranked Choice Voting

By Bill Dries

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Former Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy was a vocal advocate for ranked choice or instant runoff voting options in 2008 and was a potent force behind the city charter amendment that year that permits a new way of voting. The move stalled almost immediately, but could be on its way to a revival. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

The Shelby County Election Commission could hold a public mock election of what is called Ranked Choice Voting in 2019, ahead of city of Memphis elections that year.

But the earliest the election commission could move to new machines that would provide such an option is the 2022 elections, says Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips. And that’s provided the state certifies the use of a voting system that includes the option, which it currently doesn’t.

Phillips briefed election commissioners and the public Tuesday, July 18, on the option that is a part of the city of Memphis charter.

“Remember this is not a debate about Ranked Choice Voting,” Phillips said at the outset of the presentation. “The voters spoke.”

City voters approved a 2008 city charter amendment allowing for “instant runoff voting” as part of a package of charter amendments proposed by the Memphis Charter Commission. It was to go into effect with the 2011 city election “unless the election commission certified that voting machine limitations made its implementation in time for that election unfeasible,” the ordinance approved by voters reads.

That’s just what the election commission did, although Phillips said Tuesday that it is more a matter of equipment not supporting such a transition than limitations of the touch-screen machines. In any event, the state certifies different voting systems that local election commissions can choose from and none of the systems currently certified by the state can handle Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).

Phillips makes a distinction from RCV and instant runoff voting – which is the phrase used in the 2008 referendum. The process she described is identical to the charter amendment’s description of instant runoff voting.

The names of candidates for a Memphis City Council seat, the only elected offices – city, county, state or federal – that there is currently a runoff provision for in all of Shelby County politics, would be repeated three times across the ballot. The first listing on the left side of the ballot would be a voter’s first choice, the middle column would provide the second choice and the far right column the third choice.

Voters aren’t required to select choices in all three columns.

Phillips said the vote count, in the event no candidate got 50 percent plus one vote, would take days. There also would be questions about whether to release the second and third preferences of voters ahead of the vote count that includes them.

“The machines tapes, as they come off the machines, will count the number of second- and third-place votes. So you will have a total number of votes on those for each candidate. But you cannot tabulate. It is not important how many votes are in second and third place,” Phillips said. “What’s important is the relationship between the second- and third-place votes on each ballot. Most jurisdictions don’t release the tallies of the second and third choices on election night. That tends to confuse people.”

The vote count distributes the second and third choices for a candidate with the lowest total compared to other contenders, until one of them gets a simple majority of votes. It does not necessarily tally the second and third preferences of every voter unless it takes that to get one of the top two contenders to a simple majority.

With the longer vote count, Phillips said the expense of that type of election is more, although probably not more than a separate runoff election.

The current understanding is that the runoff provision applies only to the seven single-member council positions. The council super districts are two districts – each taking in half of the city and each represented by three council members.

Phillips said under one interpretation, the super district council seats could also come under a runoff requirement.

There are also specific procedures and issues local election officials and the Tennessee Legislature would have to spell out.

Then-Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy was the most vocal proponent of the option in 2008 and was among those in the audience Tuesday for the demonstration and explanation.

“All the voter has to understand when he walks into the voting booth, is first choice, second choice, third choice,” Mulroy said. “I think the plan to do a voter education plan is sound. I think we will need that, at least the first time out.”

Veteran Democratic Party activist Del Gill said RCV is “horrible” and could easily result in someone much further down in the first choice vote total, in a large field, winning elected office.

“I don’t like this system, but a fairer way of doing this would be … give them five points for first place, four points for second and so forth,” he said. “That way there would be no further need to do any further ranking. … But this allows for a joke off and there’s no trail.”

Gill also foresaw candidates instructing their supporters to vote for them as the first, second and third preference.

The instant runoff or RCV option was one of several changes to city government proposed by the charter commission and approved by voters. Others included term limits for the mayor and city council, as well as staggered elections for city council members, and a move of Memphis elections out of the odd-year cycle to an even-year cycle to share the ballot with county elections.

Two years later, the council put another charter referendum on the ballot that undid the move to the even-year election cycle and staggering council seat elections. Voters approved the undoing of those changes.

PROPERTY SALES 97 418 8,253
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BUILDING PERMITS 194 1,059 18,126
BANKRUPTCIES 46 208 5,367