More than a decade ago, Memphis voters chose to use Ranked Choice Voting (then called Instant Runoff Voting) for all municipal races. After the vote, the citizens left it to the city government to enact this and the other citizen passed reforms. Unfortunately, the council went to work undoing those reforms. The council was successful in convincing voters to eliminate residency restrictions and staggered terms, but their efforts fell short last year when Council tried to repeal RCV and extending term-limits.
The Council has a history of rebuking citizen reforms but we now have an opportunity to build trust with the citizens they serve. The first thing the Council needs to do is respond to the request for policy guidance that the Shelby County Election Administrator gave to Allen Wade, City Council attorney, in July 2018.
The guidance should instruct the Shelby County Election Commission on how to properly manage RCV elections and provide 2023 single-member City Council candidates ample time to craft effective campaigns for an RCV election. Policy guidelines are good for candidates, good for voters, and good for democracy.
City council candidates need to be prepared to discuss RCV with their constituents and with their campaign teams. Candidates will need to draw on policy guidelines for proper talking points but can only do so if the City Council passes an ordinance that outlines those guidelines.
The Shelby County Election Commission needs RCV policy guidance in order to implement in future elections. The City Council needs to answer some fundamental questions like how many candidates to rank, what to do in case of a tie, and if candidates should be “batch eliminated.” These are boilerplate questions with boilerplate answers, and institutions such as the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center exist solely to help municipalities answer them.
If the City Council does not act quickly, it risks diluting people’s trust in our government and voters will begin to question why they should participate in elections if elected officials ignore the results. This is perhaps the largest and most tragic risk of inaction by the Memphis City Council. In a state and county where voter turnout and confidence is below national averages, our community cannot risk a diminished trust in our electoral process.
If the Council drags their feet and waits until the very last minute to draft policy guidelines, they risk undermining our very democracy. Candidates will be scrambling. Voter education organizations will have to rush to make sure voters will know how to rank. Incumbents accrue an electoral advantage over newcomers because they’ve got their thumbs on the scales. All of this can be avoided with quickly enacted policy guidance.