VOL. 133 | NO. 146 | Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Moves to Abolish IRV and City Runoff Provision Remain on November Ballot
By Bill Dries
After intense lobbying by advocates of instant runoff voting, Memphis city council members doubled down Tuesday, July 24, on their decision to put a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot that would do away with the current city charter provision calling for instant-runoff voting.
On a 0-10 vote the council voted down on first reading an ordinance that would have taken the question off the ballot.
The defeat on first reading means the ordinance does not advance to second and third readings under council rules.
The system of voters selecting and ranking multiple choices for single member city council district seats has never been used in Memphis although it’s been a part of the city charter for nearly a decade.
Election commission officials initially said the city’s voting machines were not configured to do such balloting. But shortly after she became elections administrator in 2016, Linda Phillips said there was a way to do IRV starting in 2019, the council approved a referendum ordinance to abolish IRV.
Another ballot question in November also approved by the council would do away with the runoff provision requiring a separate runoff election in single-member district council races where no contender gets a majority of the votes. IRV, also known as ranked-choice voting, is viewed as a way of achieving a majority vote without a separate runoff.
The runoff provision applies only to single-member district council seats after a 1991 Memphis federal court ruling said runoffs were unconstitutional in citywide races including the race for mayor and abolished at large or citywide council seats. The council replaced the at large seats with super district seats – three council seats for each of the two halves of the city. The council also kept the runoff provision in place for the single-member council districts.
Council member Jamita Swearengen called Tuesday for a vote on the first of three readings of an ordinance to take the two referendums -- IRV and runoffs -- off the November ballot “so we can stop being lobbied by (former county commissioner) Steve Mulroy and IRV supporters.”
“We are sometimes in public places and they are still lobbying us,” Swearengen said.
The lobbying intensified last week as council member Janis Fullilove came out in favor of keeping IRV. Fullilove was not at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“At least one council member has changed her mind on this,” council member Edmund Ford Jr. said Tuesday of Fullilove. “Let’s go ahead and put this to rest today.”
The group Save IRV Memphis, that includes Mulroy, has also called for three council members – Fullilove, Ford and Bill Morrison, who are seeking other offices in the Aug. 2 county general elections -- to declare that they will resign quickly if they win so special elections for the vacant council seats can go on the November ballot.
The group is also calling for the release of a legal memo council members have from their attorney Allan Wade on the subject of whether the council races could go on the November ballot or if the council would instead fill any vacancies until the regularly scheduled 2019 city elections.
A similar scenario in the 1994 county elections saw three sitting council members elected to the county commission that August. Their three seats went on the November 1994 ballot as special elections.
Earlier this month Save IRV released a legal opinion from the Washington D.C. law firm Hogan Lovells saying there could be special council races in November.
Meanwhile, council member Martavius Jones withdrew his proposal Tuesday for another ballot question on the November ballot that would have done away with the elected office of city court clerk and made the office a part of the city treasurer’s office.
Jones cited the other ballot questions on the November ballot in dropping the idea.
“I fear we have too many items on there,” he said.
The third city charter referendum on the November ballot would extend the city’s current limit of two consecutive terms for the mayor and city council members to three consecutive terms.
If approved by voters it would take effect immediately and apply to the current city council members, six of whom are serving their second and final term on the council under the provision. That includes Fullilove, Morrison and Ford who, if they lose their bids for county office, could run for a third term on the council if the term limits are extended.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has said he does not intend to seek a third term even if the charter amendment is approved by voters.