On November 14th, the citizens of two Memphis City Council districts will have an opportunity to finish up with the business of selecting their representatives to serve on the council. As grateful as we are that the current electoral system allows this opportunity to perfect the people's will, we'll say again, as we've said in the past, this is a lousy way to do it.
By the time that runoff election date rolls around, the always chancey Memphis weather will have had ample opportunity to turn sour on us, discouraging turnout, and it's already a given that runoff elections are notoriously poorly attended even in the best of conditions.
We have no reason to expect otherwise for what amounts to judgment day for council Districts 1 and 7 — and an important judgment day at that. Depending on the outcome, there could be two council incumbents returned, with a disposition to continue the governing pattern of the past, or two new faces, those of candidates whose campaign rhetoric at least obliges them to consider serious change in the way city government does its business.
An even split between these prospects is also possible. Our concern does not necessarily lie with a commitment to either point of view or to any of the four candidates. What we worry about is the fact that the honest will of the people may not factor into the truncated totals of a runoff election — one in which the outcome could be decided by the weather or by the electorate's lapsed attention, or, even in the best-case scenario, by the superiority of one campaign organization or another in forcing their cadres to the polls.
The solution to the runoff dilemma is no secret: It is the election process known alternately as Ranked Choice Voting or Instant Runoff Voting. This process has twice been approved by a large majority of Memphis voters — in a 2008 referendum and in another one in 2018. The process has so far been sabotaged by holdover council members who refuse to authorize the county Election Coordinator to employ it, and by state election authorities, who have intervened against its use. Come to think of it, that's another good argument in favor of the new faces on the runoff ballot.
Regardless of what happens on November 14th, an event scheduled for the previous day, Wednesday, November 13th, also will have serious import for Memphis' political future. On that date, retired Circuit Court Judge William B. Acree of Jackson convenes a hearing in Memphis to decide on the ultimate fate of bogus sample ballots that falsely claim to represent the endorsement choices of local political parties. For several election cycles, local entrepreneurs have been in the habit of fobbing off these travesties to local voters at election time.
The scandal is that an outside judge had to be called in to hear the case, since the judges of Shelby County have been as guilty as any other candidates in paying their way onto these fraudulent ballots and thus had to recuse themselves. It is for their sake and ours that we hope Judge Acree will see fit to decree an end to this fraud against democracy.