June 7, 2019

Memphis Voters Vote to Retain Ranked Choice Voting

Shelby County Election Commission Coordinator, Linda Philips, stated in 2017 that she believed ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, would be implemented in 2019 Memphis City Council races.  She stated that a 2008 City Charter amendment made it perfectly clear that RCV could be legally implemented and that the voting machines could technologically support a ranked choice voting election.

Ms. Philips announcement came as a surprise to elected and appointed officials, as well as local rcv activists.  Her predecessor had incorrectly stated that the shelby county election commission voting machines could not manage ranked choice voting elections.  She had found a way to make it work with current technology.

The Memphis City Council vehemently opposed the adoption of this electoral reform. They hired a lobbyist to draft and attempt to pass anti-RCV legislation that would have effectively banned the practice across the state of Tennessee.  Luckily, that effort was quickly defeated by local activists and media outlets who brought the issue up in the public arena.

The Memphis City Council then put two referendums on the 2018 November ballot designed to repeal the 2008 Charter amendment and ranked choice voting.  They even spent $40,000 on a one-sided “educational” campaign to encourage repeal.

After a long ranked choice voting education campaign, Memphis voted to reject the Memphis City Council efforts to repeal ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, in municipal elections.  The referendums failed with less than 37% support for repeal of ranked choice voting. Memphis voters expected to see ranked choice voting implemented in the 2019 City Council Races but actions by an appointed State official caused confusion regarding its implementation.

The State Election Commission Coordinator, Mark Goins, announced shortly after the Memphis election that he believed ranked choice voting did not comply with state law.  Mr. Goins, an appointed official by the Tennessee Secretary of State, opined in late 2018 that he believed RCV did not comply with state law for technical reasons. This set off a chain of legal proceedings that will result in a series of court cases that will eventually be settled in Chancery Court in 2019.  

Memphis voted to implement ranked choice voting in 2008 with 73% approval from voters.  The vote amended the Memphis City Charter to allow for ranked choice voting in municipal elections that required a majority to win.  The Shelby Election Commission Coordinator stated shortly after the election that ranked choice voting could not be technologically implemented.  This set the stage for nearly 10 years of delay for RCV’s implementation.