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VOL. 132 | NO. 230 | Monday, November 20, 2017

Ranked-Choice Voting Not Likely, Given State’s Opinion

By Bill Dries

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A move to ranked-choice voting in the 2019 Memphis elections is still being explored by the Shelby County Election Commission.

But it isn’t likely to happen, based on a September letter to local elections administrator Linda Phillips from state election coordinator Mark Goins that his office says is the final word on the matter.

In the letter, Goins said the voting system that allows voters to select more than one candidate in a race and rank them in order of preference as an alternative to a separate runoff election is not permitted by the state.

“The current laws of Tennessee do not appear to allow this system of ranked-choice voting,” Goins wrote.

The local elections coordinator continues to look at how ranked-choice voting in the 2019 Memphis elections might work, but the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office says a contrary opinion from the state elections coordinator is the final word short of a lawsuit. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)


Goins’ opinion hasn’t changed since then, said Adam Ghassemi, communications director for the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, which includes the election coordinator’s office. And his opinion is binding on the local election commission.

“Per state law, counties must submit a sample ballot to the Division of Elections for approval before each election, and they are not allowed to spend any funds on ballots until the division grants approval,” Ghassemi told The Daily News. “Since the proposed ballot layout is inconsistent with state law, the division would not be able to approve the ranked-choice ballots for use in 2019.

“Furthermore, the coordinator advises election commissions and administrators of elections as to the proper methods of performing their duties and authoritatively interprets election laws for all persons administering them.”

The use of ranked-choice voting (RCV) in the races for the seven single-member districts of the Memphis City Council when no candidate in a race gets a majority of votes cast was approved by Memphis voters in a 2008 charter amendment.

If no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, plus one vote, a second count would ensue under RCV that eliminates the candidate with the lowest vote total and distributes the second preference choices on those ballots to other candidates. That would continue until a candidate reaches a majority of the voters who participated in the election.

The races for the seven single-member city council districts are the only offices in city or county government that require a runoff if no candidate gets a majority.

A runoff provision in the 1967 city charter that required runoffs for citywide offices was declared unconstitutional in a 1991 federal court ruling. The same ruling abolished at-large or citywide city council seats. The council at the time replaced them with two super districts that each take in half of the city. Three council members are elected from each super district. There is no runoff requirement for the six council super district positions.

Even before the passage of the 2008 charter amendment, local election officials said the touch-screen voting machines still used by Shelby County voters could not accommodate RCV.

That changed when Linda Phillips became the new local elections administrator last year and quickly came up with a ballot configuration that the touch-screen machines could handle.

She duplicated a list of candidates and put the same list side by side, three across, on the ballot face.

With that, Phillips said the charter amendment would be fulfilled with RCV taking place in the next city election, which would be October of 2019.

“We are continuing to look at it,” Phillips said last week. “But we are always looking at and exploring new things.”

That includes voting machines not yet approved or certified by the state, Phillips added, noting that part of the job of conducting elections is to stay ahead of and informed of trends and prepare for their possible arrival.

Phillips did not solicit an opinion from Goins. But his letter in September came as city council member Edmund Ford Jr. was about to make his call for a referendum in 2018 asking city voters to repeal the same RCV provision in the charter they approved in 2008.

The referendum ordinance is on the council’s agenda Tuesday for the second of three readings. Under the terms of the ordinance, the question would go on the November 2018 ballot. But proceeding now, with the state saying RCV is not allowed by state law, may make proceeding a moot point.

The opinion of the state election coordinator has prevailed before in disputes, short of a court order. The most recent example being the move by the city of Memphis in 2012 to allow city voters to use city-issued library cards as a valid form of voter identification.

The city was seeking to expand the kinds of identification used in the newly enacted state Voter Photo ID Act.

In that instance, Goins instructed the election commission that it could not accept the photo library cards as valid identification to vote under terms of the state law. The election commission followed those instructions and the city contested the issue in court.

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