Last November, voters in four City Council districts were asked to go back to the polls one month after the main city election to decide runoff elections. That extra election cost about $250,000 and yielded a typically abysmal 4 percent turnout rate (compared to 38 percent in the city election).
This year, the Memphis City Charter Commission can give us the benefits of a runoff without a second election, saving money, increasing turnout, improving campaigns, and making election results more representative. They can do so by putting on the referendum ballot a proposal for Memphis voters to approve Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in city elections.
In IRV, voters rank candidates in preference order: "1," "2," "3," etc. Voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. If a candidate gets a majority of first–place votes, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. Votes for that candidate are redistributed among the remaining candidates based on those voters' second-place choice. If someone thereby gains a majority, they are elected. If not, the next-weakest candidate is eliminated and the vote redistributed, until someone gets a majority.
IRV is used in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Oakland, Sarasota, and a number of other cities and was recently adopted in North Carolina by the cities of Cary and Hendersonville. It's used for overseas absentee ballots in Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and other states. Globally, it's used to elect the leaders of Ireland and India, the national legislature of Australia, and the mayor of London, among others.
IRV represents a growing trend. And the system presents several other advantages. It eliminates the "spoiler problem," preventing a candidate from winning office with, say, 32 percent of the vote. It elects consensus candidates whose support is broad as well as deep. Not every voter will get their first choice, but far fewer will get their last choice.
It also encourages positive campaigning: Candidates want to be the first-place choice of their base and the second-place choice of their rival's base.
IRV gives lesser-known, lesser-funded candidates more of a chance. No longer is voting for such a candidate "throwing away your vote." If in 2000, for example, you wanted to vote for Ralph Nader but were afraid it would be in effect a vote for Bush, you could have ranked Nader "1" and Gore "2." Because of this, IRV makes elections more competitive, thus boosting voter turnout.
Finally, voters can vote based on who they think will do the best job, without consulting the latest poll to see who's "really got a chance of winning."
For these reasons, Memphis should adopt IRV for all City Council elections, including those in the two "superdistricts" which currently don't have runoffs. If the seven "single-member district" council-persons have to earn a majority of the vote, shouldn't the six "superdistrict" councilpersons have to do the same?
Memphis should also use IRV for the mayor's race. Doing this would mean getting permission from the federal court that decided the "majority vote" civil rights case filed in 1988. But this is doable. Since the lawsuit was filed, Memphis has changed from majority-white to majority-black. No longer can one seriously doubt the ability of African-American Memphians to elect candidates of their choice, which is why the feds originally got involved.
It may take time and money to prepare our voting machines for IRV, but the Charter Commission can give voters a referendum that empowers the city to adopt IRV once the technical problems are resolved or make it effective some number of years in the future. And the money saved in stopping unnecessary runoff elections will pay for any technical adjustments in the long run.
The Memphis Charter Commission has a once-in-a-generation chance to move Memphis forward, away from an outdated election system. Let's hope the voters get a chance to decide.
Steve Mulroy is a law professor at the University of Memphis and a member of the Shelby County Commission.