Why Democracy Reform

By Aaron Fowles

The Amazon is on fire. Gun-enabled domestic terrorism is on the rise. Families are being torn apart at the border. An end to war is nowhere in sight. We find ourselves inching ever closer to ethical and financial collapse.

In the midst of all of these crises and looming catastrophes, I’m going to try to convince you to care about democracy reform.

For context, I am the Program Director of Ranked Choice Tennessee, an organization dedicated to education and advocacy about Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), a voting system that allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference instead of picking just one. Election administrators can use this data to find a candidate with majority support with just one trip to the polls, even from a crowded field.

I recently wrestled with the question: Why democracy reform? I’m fully aware of the scope of crisis weighing down on us, yet I choose to spend my time and energy pursuing a small change to the way we vote. Why?

Here’s the best answer I could come up with: voting is the most popular civic act, so it makes sense to start there. Most people don’t volunteer to pick up trash. Most people don’t attend rallies. Most people don’t send letters or postcards to their elected officials. People all over the world are busy with their own personal lives, struggling in their own ways to make ends meet and put food on the table–but they will vote.

That’s the whole basis of our representative system, isn’t it? We go out every now and then, cast our ballots, and then rely on the people elected to represent us in the large-scale discussions and policy decisions that affect our lives. We even entrust these representatives with a portion of our income to effect the policies that they deem best for us. It’s the civic equivalent of using a slow cooker: set it and forget it.

We shouldn’t have to bombard representatives with postcards. We shouldn’t have to fight special interests to get our representatives to care about us and work for our benefit. In a perfect world, our government would truly be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Looking around, however, it becomes evident that this is not the case. We have governments at every level that do not resemble their constituencies, do not work in their favor, and do not listen to the voters.

Let’s look at Memphis as an example. The city has a population of about 650,000. In 2015, there were about 364,000 registered voters and about 102,000 of them voted for a turnout rate of about 28%. 

What could 102,000 people do if they dedicated themselves to cleaning up the city, or improving education, or reducing crime, or providing opportunities for youth? We’d have a brand new city.

Most people won’t do those things, but they will vote for people who they expect to do those things for them, therefore it is worth exploring just how effective electoral systems are in measuring the intent of the populace.

Again, let’s use Memphis as an example. The races for mayor and city court clerk are both plurality races, meaning that whoever gets the most votes wins, even if the winner didn’t receive a majority (50% +1). The same plurality rule applies to the two super districts, each of which sends 3 members to the city council. Here’s the winning percentage of each of those races:

City Court Clerk26.15%
Super district 8-169.26%
Super district 8-276.86%
Super district 8-344.95%
Super district 9-169.98%
Super district 9-247.23%
Super district 9-361.21%

We can see that in half of the plurality races, the winner was the person for whom most people did not vote. This should give us pause, because if the winner of the election is not chosen by the majority of the voters, then who does that winner actually represent?

For context, the elections that did obtain majority results were all elections with incumbents. The elections that were decided by a mere plurality were all open races with multiple candidates.

The single member districts, of which there are 7 in Memphis, didn’t fare much better in 2015. Two districts had incumbents and were both won win majority results. The remaining races, however, did not achieve a majority results and so were sent to a runoff election between the top two candidates in each race. Turnout in those races dropped by 78%.

Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 09.27.30

What’s more, that turnout dropped more in areas of low median household income. The first map shows runoff turnout as a function of the turnout in the general. Darker shading means better turnout. The second map shows median household income. Darker shading means higher median income.

You can see from the maps that areas of higher median household income have better runoff turnout.

Why might that be? In Memphis we have two weeks of early voting and a good number of satellite locations. Why didn’t people who live in areas of lower median household income come back out to vote?

Some people I’ve spoken with have said it is because people who live in low-income areas don’t care about voting. I find it difficult to believe this because the map shows dropoff as a function of people who had already come out to vote once.

Some people say the problem is lack of transportation. To illustrate, here is a map showing how far someone can travel by bus from the Fedex Hub, a major employer in Memphis.

Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 09.30.21

The smallest circle shows how far a rider can travel in 30 minutes. Assuming the potential voter has a 1 hour break, she would have to get a bus at the right time, ride it for about 15 minutes, get in line to vote, vote, get back on the bus at just the right time, and ride 15 minutes back to work.

That’s unrealistic.

Equally unrealistic is expecting someone who relies on public transit to conveniently stop at an early voting site on the way to or from work. The bus system simply does not provide adequate coverage

Maybe transportation is the issue. Maybe child care is the issue. Maybe not having time off between 2 or 3 part-time jobs is the issue.

Frankly, I don’t care what the issue is. The dropoff is real and ranked choice voting, a vital democracy reform, can solve it.

Why are low turnout elections a threat?

OK, so there’s low turnout, now what? Why should we care that people are getting elected in low turnout elections, so far as they win a majority of the votes that are cast? 

Thinking about this question got me thinking about a word from Greek: polisPolis is, as I understand, the root for words like policy and politics. It originally referred to a city or a group of citizens.

Do you remember learning about sampling in elementary school? If there were a large bin filled with orange and blue marbles, for example, you could grab a random handful and use that small sample to determine the ratio of orange marbles to blue marbles in the entire bin. This assumption works if the sample is representative of the whole.

If the “sample” of runoff voters were representative of the “whole” of general voters, runoffs would not be a problem. The polis would be represented. If, on the other hand, the runoff voters are not representative of the general voters, we are faced with the situation of one polis making decisions for another. 

In the era of data-driven campaigning, candidates know who their likely voters are and are able to focus their resources on them. This rather vicious spiral actually drives more people outside of the electoral process. If candidates know whom to target to get elected, they know whom they have to please to get re-elected. 

Ranked Choice Voting, a simple democracy reform, would change the equation completely. Candidates would need to reach out to the entire constituency, not a data-driven sliver, in order to win. Once in office, they would benefit not from catering to an elite few, but from serving the entire polis

And this is why I focus on democracy reform. In our representative system, we entrust a vast amount of power and resources to a select few. Our current system of conducting elections does not promise to select the correct few. A small and simple change can yield dramatic effects of representation, which can yield dramatic policy shifts and positive outcomes.



What is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)

RCV is an electoral reform that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. These rankings are then used to elect candidates with the broadest appeal.

How does RCV work?

RCV works just like any election that requires a majority to win with exception of one small change: candidate rankings.

But first, let’s talk about how current elections work.

Current Municipal Elections

Most municipal elections require a majority vote to win.  This means that candidates must receive 50%+1 of the vote to win during a general election.  If no candidate win’s a majority of the vote, then a runoff between the top two popular candidates is triggered 6 weeks after the general election. The top two candidates must continue their campaigning and often need to raise additional funds to do so.

The problem with runoff elections is that turnout plummets.  In Memphis in 2015, 65,000 voters participated in the general election in 5 City Council races but only 15,000 showed up for the runoff. It’s not the only place where turnout drops.

How RCV differs from current elections

Under an RCV elections, candidates rank their choices in order of preference.  The first candidate to receive 50%+1, a majority, of the 1st place votes win the election.  This is exactly the same as current municipal elections.

However, if no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that voter’s 2nd choice becomes their 1st choice and the total is tallied and repeated until a clear majority winner emerges.  RCV is just like a runoff election but it happens instantly.

Memphis voted to use RCV in 2008 but appointed bureaucrats slow walked its implementation for 11 years.  Implementation will likely be 2023.

Why RCV?

America is better when more people participate in the electoral process.  By combining the general election with the runoff election coupled with voter education and outreach, more people have better government representation.

RCV is a method of electing a majority consensus candidate that saves taxpayers money, includes more people in elections and encourages positive campaigning.

And, if you live in Memphis, Tennessee, it’s the law.



Letter from the Program Director

We need to turn the tide on voter participation in Memphis. Tennessee has some of the worst turnout in the nation and our current electoral system shuts people out of the process.Traditional first-past-the-post elections disenfranchise voters at every turn, by splitting the initial vote or forcing voters to vote again in runoff elections where the turnout skews disproportionately in favor of middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.

Ranked Choice voting is an achievable and effective solution to this problem.Memphis has made;significant progress towards this goal and Nashville isn’t far behind.  We are working with the Tennessee legislature to eliminate all hurdles to implementation.

We recently attended the Unrig Summit in Nashville where we had the opportunity to share our message and mission with ordinary people from across the country, including hundreds of people in Tennessee. Voters from Memphis to Chattanooga want to change their elections. And they need our help. Will you join the electoral reform movement by making a monthly or one-timecontribution to Ranked Choice Tennessee? Your contribution ensures increased voter participation. Our average donor gives $40. Can you help us today? Your commitment to fair elections keeps our efforts alive.

Please make sure to share our newsletters and social media with your friends. Or stop by our office, pick up some advocacy cards and then have your friends sign them. These cards are great representations of a physical constituency.

You can also support the movement by participating in the People’s Convention 2.0 Agenda survey and indicate that you “Strongly Agree to using RCV in Memphis municipal elections”. It’s the last question.

Thank you and be sure to stay in touch.


Aaron  Fowles
Program Director
Ranked Choice Tennessee

Ranked Choice Voting – Nashville Fundraiser – March 29, 2019

Local Election Reform Advocate Hosts Book Signing

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                             March 11, 2019


Former County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, late of the local Memphis effort to defeat the Instant Runoff Voting/Term Limits repeal referenda, will present his new election reform book at a Mar. 19 book signing at Novel bookstore.  Mulroy just published Rethinking US Election Law:  Unskewing The System with international academic press Edward Elgar Publishing.

The book, a scholarly work but written for the layman, has received positive reviews both  locally  and nationally.  Besides Instant Runoff Voting, it  tackles the Electoral College, gerrymandering, how “spoiler” candidates can split the majority vote and lead to anti-majoritarian outcomes, and other issues.  The book proposes innovative reforms like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Proportional Representation,  the Fair Representation Act, and Ranked Choice Voting, none of which require a constitutional amendment.

“Nothing’s more important than making sure as many as possible have their vote count,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), who has proposed Electoral College reform.  “Steve Mulroy’s book will open many people’s eye to the need for American revolution through the ballot box and at the ballot box.” 

The roughly 45-minute event starts at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Mar. 19 at Novel Bookstore, 387 Perkins Extd.  Over wine and cheese, the author will speak briefly on some proposed election reforms and take questions.  Samples of the book are available for review, along with order forms to get a copy with a special author’s discount. 

Mulroy added, “There’s no obligation to buy the book, but I’d love people to come for the discussion.  These are important issues, both in Memphis and across the country.”

For more information, contact Steve Mulroy at 901-603-8779 or smulroy@memphis.edu

Bio: Steve J. Mulroy is a University of Memphis law professor and the author of Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing The System. He’s authored dozens of articles for scholarly publications and has published op-eds in Newsweek , US News & World Report,  the Associated Press, Salon, and Huffington Post. He’s been interviewed as a legal expert on MSNBCFOX News, CNN, and Fox Business. 


We’re building a movement for Ranked Choice Voting in Memphis and Beyond

Ranked Choice Tennessee is a new organization, headquartered in Memphis, that advocates and educates around Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Even though Memphis voters have voted on this issue three times in two record-turnout elections, policymakers at various levels of government are erecting barriers to its implementation. Ranked Choice Tennessee is dedicated to ensuring a smooth and quick implementation of RCV in the 2019 Memphis municipal election. RCTN also advocates for RCV throughout the state of Tennessee.

Ranked Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, is an electoral reform that brings more people into the democratic process while saving time and money. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference and if a candidate does not receive a majority of first-round votes, a runoff is simulated using the second- and third-choice preferences. Unlike traditional runoffs that disenfranchise voters or plurality voting that allows for vote splitting, Ranked Choice Voting preserves majority rule with just one trip to the polls.

Ranked Choice Tennessee is pursuing several avenues to guarantee the use of RCV: passage of a local option bill, collaboration with the Memphis City Council, and advocating for RCV in Nashville.

Local Option

Former Utah Democratic House member Rebecca Chavez-Houck and conservative Utah Republican House Representative Marc Roberts

Similar to Washington, California, and Minnesota, the legislature in Nashville will have the opportunity to give Tennesseans the ability to use RCV if they pass it in a referendum. This bill, SB970, will expressly permit municipalities to use RCV if citizens vote on it. This will bypass all of the obstructionism that Memphians have had to endure from their own city council. Utah recently passed similar legislation with enthusiastic bipartisan support.

Collaboration with the council

Linda Phillips has requested policy guidance from the city council on some aspects of RCV, including the number of rankings, tiebreak procedures, and batch elimination. These and other issues are easy to address. The City Council can and should address these issues in order to implement the will of Memphis voters. RCTN has already drafted suggested policy legislation. It’s up to the Council to act on this.

Nashville and beyond

RCV legislation has been introduced in the Metro Nashville Council. If the council approves, a referendum will be placed on the August ballot. Ranked Choice Tennessee will educate Nashvillians about the mechanics and benefits of Ranked Choice Voting.

Furthermore, Ranked Choice Tennessee looks to expand RCV to communities across that state that stand to benefit from more democratic elections. If you have contacts who are interested in discussing this electoral reform in their communities, please contact us.