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VOL. 132 | NO. 147 | Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Juxtaposing Views Greet Voting Change

By Bill Dries

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Two Memphis City Council members with experience in runoff elections have different views about a delayed move toward Ranked Choice Voting. (Daily News Files/Andrew J. Breig)

Memphis City Council members Edmund Ford Jr. and Patrice Robinson have each been on the winning side of a council runoff election and share a district border along Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven.

But they have very different opinions about eliminating runoff elections with instant-runoff or Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).

Ford is opposed to the method.

“You are essentially letting a computer, instead of a set of constituents, decide who should then be elected,” Ford said, citing “collusion” in races in other cities that use the method.

“Instead of one candidate running himself or herself, you would get a group of candidates making sure that particular candidates do not make the top three,” Ford added.

Robinson, however, says the general idea is a good one.

“The computer doesn’t decide,” she said. “Man makes the algorithm or formula behind this.”

The Shelby County Election Commission is preparing to move to the new way of voting in the 2019 city elections, nine years after city voters approved instant-runoff voting in a city charter amendment.

The effect of that amendment has been delayed for years because local elections officials said the touch-screen voting machines used in Shelby County elections could not be adapted to permit voters to make several choices in a single race that ranks them in order of preference.

But elections administrator Linda Phillips, who has been on the job about a year, recently said the machines can be adapted to fulfill the requirement of the charter amendment. And she is preparing to do just that, because the charter amendment says instant-runoff elections are to be used in the next election in which the technology can be used.

In instant-runoff voting, 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.

Under Phillips’ scenario for how such an election would be conducted, it is possible the tally of second and third voter choices would not be released on election night, but days later after a winner has been calculated.

“Do you really think you are going to have the trust of the people when they are not able to find out who won?” Ford asked. “I think that for this city, you would probably have trust being questioned and you would have collusion.”

Robinson said it comes down to money for candidates and for taxpayers.

“You’ve got to raise money. You’ve got to run a campaign and then you’ve got to pay for the polls to be open if you are the taxpayers,” she said. “I do believe that we should be able to create a way in which we can do both at the same time. I have not seen the presentation. I don’t know what the algorithm is. Until we see that we won’t know.”

Ford won election to the council in a November 2007 runoff over James O. Catchings by 95 votes in a runoff that saw a turnout of 3,300 voters. The runoff followed an October race with 11 candidates and 22,900 votes cast.

Robinson won her seat on the council in the 2015 elections by 338 votes over Keith Williams with a runoff-election turnout of 1,748 voters. That followed an October race with seven candidates and a turnout of 11,400 voters.

The runoff provision applies only to races for single-member city council districts.

Currently, that means if no candidate in a race gets a simple majority of votes cast, the two candidates with the most votes go to a separate runoff election.

Meanwhile, council members rewrote a flawed resolution from the administration Tuesday to award 14 sanitation workers from 1968 a $50,000 grant each, and set up a supplemental retirement account for four of the 14 who are still working for the city.

The new resolution makes clear that each of the 14 sanitation workers, including the four still working, would get a lump sum bonus. The previous resolution said the four still working would get the grant when they retire.

But instead of keeping the $50,000 bonus figures, the council went to $70,000 citing a higher dollar amount the adminstration mistakenly put in the resolution.

Council member Martavius Jones, meanwhile, questioned whether it is fair to give a lump sum to the workers without taking into account how long each worked for the city.

“I know this is something that has been a cloud over the city for 49 years now,” he said in council committee sessions. “I know the administration didn’t want to go into a 50th year with this cloud over their head.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland proposed the grants earlier this month, citing a decision by the union representing the workers in 1968 to opt for Social Security coverage instead of a city pension. The decision came in the wake of the 1968 sanitation workers strike when, as part of the settlement, the city recognized the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as the union representative of the workers.

Because of the decision made back then, those workers have had a harder time retiring on Social Security benefits than the pension other city workers opted to receive.

The city at one point switched sanitation workers to the city pension system in the 1990s during the tenure of Mayor Willie Herenton. But the city was forced to reverse that after federal officials said the original decision in 1968 with the union’s recognition could not be reversed.

Jones questioned whether the grants should depend on how long someone worked for the city.

“Theoretically, you could have somebody who happened to be on the job … for five years and you could have someone who worked for the city from 1968 to 2008 – and they get the same amount of money,” he said. “I wanted us to be more deliberate in coming up with this.”

He also wanted the city to take a step toward closing the gap between Social Security payments and city pension payments.

“I know we can’t make up for 50 years total,” Jones said. “But I thought we should be more deliberate in determining an amount.”

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