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VOL. 132 | NO. 201 | Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Ranked Choice Voting Faces Repeal Effort

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips uses the planets to walk people through how ranked choice voting works. Even Pluto is included in the nine-way race, although it is no longer considered a planet.

Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Jr. walks council members through the use of ranked choice voting. Ford intends to move to reverse a 2008 city charter amendment that would bring RCV to city council elections in 2019. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

She took the example to the Memphis City Council last week, the only elected body affected by the city charter provision that would have voters rank their choices in a single-member district council race by preference. It does away with later runoff elections in races where no candidate gets a simple majority of the votes cast.

The candidate with the lowest total in the initial election is eliminated. The vote count then takes the second preference of voters and distributes them to the other candidates. That continues until someone has a majority of the votes cast. If the second preference is also out of the running, the count goes to a third preference. If that third preference gets counted out, the ballot is then declared “exhausted” – unusable.

Council member Edmund Ford Jr. used his own example to explain how the process could work. Instead of planets, he used the names of council members involved in past runoff elections and the names of their rivals.

In some of the scenarios, a fourth place candidate won.

“I had 11 people in my race. That runoff was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Ford of his election to the council in 2007. “It made me work. It made me be a professional. And it made me a hard worker today.”

Ford is term-limited and cannot run for the council in 2019. He is running for the Shelby County Commission in 2018.

Council members may have been looking past the names of the planets as Phillips walked through her scenario, but the situation hit home when the names of council members, colleagues and very real rivals from less than four years ago were used.

“I’m diehard and I want councilman Joe Brown to be my district representative,” council member Reid Hedgepeth said, by way of scenario. “I vote for him on ballot 1 and on ballot 2 – I can’t stand everybody else in that race. I don’t want to vote for anyone else.”

“Not making a choice is always an option,” Phillips replied.

So is collusion, Ford contends – two candidates in a race with a larger field making a deal to urge their supporters to mark the other contender as their second choice to defeat a third, strong contender, even an incumbent.

“That happens people,” Ford said. “Under this process, you would have never experienced a runoff and go back to the neighborhood in order to fight for the district that you wanted to represent.”

Council member Worth Morgan, elected in 2015 to the council after the closest of the five runoff elections that November, asked what happens if no candidate gets 50 percent plus one of the votes after the second and third preferences are tallied.

“That’s again another policy choice,” Phillips said. “In some jurisdictions, they recalculate the threshold of ballots that become exhausted. In some, when you get down to two candidates, it’s whichever one has the most votes they win.”

That would be a plurality of the votes without the requirement of a simple majority.

Ford has a problem with the practice of “exhausting” ballots.

“I’m going to use the words ‘thrown out,’” he said. “I just can’t go back to District 6 and say, ‘Well you know what? I appreciate this 70-year-old man, this 70-year-old woman who has probably been voting since he or she was 18 or 21. But guess what? Because of the way that you voted, your vote just got thrown out.’”

The runoff provision between the top two vote-getters in a council district race has been in place for 49 years. It once applied to races for Memphis mayor, but that part of the provision was declared unconstitutional in a 1991 federal court decision that also did away with citywide, or at-large, council seats.

As Phillips talked about waiting six to eight days past election day to get the results from counting second and third preferences, council chairman Berlin Boyd shook his head.

When Phillips talked about it being easier to count the ballots by hand, council member Philip Spinosa asked, “Are you serious?” Phillips is.

There were 15,000 votes cast in all five council runoff elections in November 2015 that followed the October city elections. Phillips said the separate runoff election cost about $300,000, compared to a $60,000 expense for the labor to hand-count second and third voter preferences.

Ford intends to propose undoing the 2008 city charter amendment approved by voters that makes ranked choice voting possible.

The amendment called for its implementation as soon as the voting technology could support such a ballot layout. Election officials at the time said the touch-screen machines used then and now could not support a multiple-choice election.

Phillips, who became elections administrator about a year ago, said earlier this year there is a way to do it by laying out the same list of candidates for a council seat three times across the ballot face. Thus, the charter amendment approved by voters requires the election commission to carry out ranked choice voting starting with the 2019 city elections.

Ford said he will introduce a referendum ordinance at the Oct. 17 council session that would effectively repeal the move to RCV, if voters approve. The ordinance would take three readings, with the referendum placed on one of the regularly scheduled 2018 election ballots for city voters.

“If I was in first place and that fourth place person won, I would be having a lot of questions,” Ford said. “I would want to say, ‘Let me see all of those ballots.’ Some cities don’t let you see the ballots at all.

“Is the idea of one person-one vote compromised due to an algorithm made by man? Can the election commission deal with the mathematical consequences that can likely occur when candidates are declared winners days after the election is over?”

There is a precedent for repealing a charter amendment approved by city voters. In 2008, voters approved a shift of city elections to even-numbered years, to go with other elections, instead of the stand-alone odd-year cycle.

Two years later, the council put another charter amendment on the ballot to repeal that decision and it was approved by voters.

City voters have also approved various and contradictory residency requirement amendments over the years.

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