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Ranked Choice Voting in Memphis

posted Jul 20, 2017, 8:03 PM by Aaron Fowles   [ updated Jul 20, 2017, 8:10 PM ]
This is just to share the information that was presented at the Shelby County Election Commission on July 18th.

Linda Phillips, the administrator of elections, shared with the Election Commission a rough description of ranked choice voting, as well as its advantages and disadvantages.  She also worked through some painfully long examples involving people's choices of favorite planets.  Minnesota Public Radio has a pretty good example here.
The city of Memphis voted in 2009 to utilize instant runoff voting (which I will call ranked choice voting and write as RCV) as soon as technology permits.  The problem in Tennessee is that there is no equipment that is certified to tally RCV results.  Therefore, in order to utilize RCV (only in single-member districts like city council), ballots would have to be printed off and either hand-sorted or entered into spreadsheets for analysis in the case that no candidate wins the plurality in the first round.  While this is arduous and time-consuming, it is far easier, cheaper, and faster than holding a runoff.  The 2015 election cost about $900,000, and $360,000 of that was the runoff.  While the runoff took weeks, counting RCV ballots takes days.

Right now, RCV would only apply to single-member city council districts, not super districts, though Linda Phillips admits that one reading of the city charter might require RCV in those districts, as well.  It will take some legislation at the state level during the 2018 session to iron out some of the kinks in the law.  

One of the reasons that RCV is currently limited to municipal elections is that the larger, partisan elections, are already winnowed by party primaries.  If, however, a bill like HB662 ends up passing and the signature requirements for third parties are lowered, there might be more contenders for partisan races and, maybe, we could see RCV utilized in those as well.

All in all, RCV could save the city money on runoff elections for city council races.  In 2019 there will be six seats with no incumbents.  The 2015 race had five runoffs, each one open to an additional cycle of fundraising.  We can assume that there will be runoffs in 2019, so by planning now the city can save money in the future.

There will be some initial costs.  The city will have to pay for additional training, a public mock election, various voter education initiatives, and the printing of paper ballots to be hand sorted according to the RCV methodology.   Even if it costs more to run the first RCV election that it would be to run two separate elections, RCV will allow for greater public input in public representation.  The voter turnout in 2015 was a pretty sad 28%, but the runoff turnout was a depressing 6%.  That means that just 6% of the electorate turned out to vote for five of our city council seats.  That's nearly half the city council.

Ranked Choice Voting is a tool for democracy.  It is imperfect and we will have growing pains, but it's worth it.  We can call on candidates to dedicate a portion of their campaign funds to neutral voter education or we can take that burden on ourselves.

Look below Mulroy's left elbow
Look below Mulroy's left elbow