Races for single-district Memphis City Council seats are currently decided by a general election, followed by a runoff between the two candidates with the most votes — if no candidate secures more than half. In 2008, 71 percent of Memphis voters chose to adopt a type of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), touted to increase the chances of selecting candidates who look like Memphis, while leveling the playing field for and reducing the cost of elections.
IRV was never carried out because of concerns about voting machines, and now that these have been resolved, the voting strategy is slated for implementation in 2019. City Council resolutions on the Nov. 6 ballot could scrap the whole thing before it starts: Of three resolutions, the second and third would overturn voters’ original choice for IRV if adopted.
Passing the second referendum would nullify voters’ earlier decision to adopt IRV. Passing the third referendum would remove the requirement for a runoff election, and Memphians would then use the plurality method for single-member districts. In plurality elections, the winner is the candidate who gets the most votes. This sounds reasonable but in fact can marginalize even strong majorities of voters by electing candidates who are not acceptable to them.
What does IRV mean for Memphis? Here are seven quick facts Memphians should know before deciding how to vote.
- IRV is easy to use and works well in other places. In IRV elections, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. In the version adopted by Memphis voters in 2008, they rank up to three candidates. If any of them gets more than half of the first-place votes that candidate wins. If not, the candidate getting the fewest first-place votes is eliminated from the ballots, and the votes are recounted. This process continues until some candidate wins by getting more than half of the first-place votes. IRV is used for state and congressional elections in Maine, and in local elections of 11 cities around the U.S. and for various elections in countries like Australia and Ireland. U.S. courts have upheld IRV’s consistency with the constitution’s one-person, one-vote requirement.
2. IRV will elevate the votes of traditionally disenfranchised groups. Voter participation in Memphis is generally low, and it is lower still in runoff elections. In 2015, 28 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2015 Memphis municipal election, while only 5.8 percent did so in the subsequent runoff election. Jobs, family obligations, transportation and mobility challenges limit the ability of many Memphians to go to the polls, and these and other burdens fall disproportionately on poor and minority voters. Under IRV, voters cast a single ballot that allows the runoff election to be held automatically by examining voters’ second- and third-place choices.
3. IRV will reduce the influence of campaign money and make it easier for grassroots candidates to win. Candidates in runoff elections must raise large amounts of money in the few weeks between the general and runoff races to get their message out. For example, in 2015, candidates for the runoff election had to raise money to pay for TV, radio and print ads, phone banks and other operations between the general election on Oct. 8 and the runoff on Nov.19. This is a greater challenge for candidates who raise money from many small donations. Under IRV, all candidates will have a single, longer period to raise money and make their case to voters.
4. IRV will save money. In 2008, Roland McElrath, City of Memphis finance director, estimated IRV would save taxpayers $250,000 a year by eliminating the need to organize a runoff.
5. IRV is superior to the plurality voting system. Under plurality, the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes wins, even if it is less than half of the total. This is the system Memphis uses to elect our mayor and superdistrict council representatives. We will also use it for single-member districts if the third referendum passes. Under the plurality system, it is possible for the winning candidate to be ranked last by a majority of voters. For example, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland won the 2015 election with 42 percent of the vote. Many analysts believe this happened because the black vote was split among three other candidates. In contrast to the plurality vote, IRV combats vote-splitting by making it impossible for a candidate to win if they are ranked last by a majority of voters.
6. IRV is superior to runoff voting. If there had been a runoff in the 2015 mayor’s race, Strickland would have faced Wharton, who won the second-highest fraction of the votes, 22 percent. Even if Wharton won the support of all of Collins’ and Williams’ voters, he still could have lost to Strickland because we don’t know which voters would have showed up for the runoff election. With IRV, voters specify their second and third choices when they cast their ballots, making a second trip to the polls unnecessary.
7. IRV is not perfect. It has been shown that every voting method, including IRV, can lead to undesirable voting outcomes. For example, IRV opponents correctly cite the possibility of “exhausted votes,” in which all three of a voter’s choices are eliminated, meaning all three of the candidates they listed on their ballot are eliminated during the instant runoff process. Critics fail to mention the fraction of such votes is almost always smaller than the dropoff that typically happens during runoff elections.
For example, FairVote has found 88 percent of ballots cast in San Francisco Bay Area’s IRV elections from 1995–2015 were included in the final election tally. However, the number of votes cast in runoff elections was between 63 percent and 77 percent of the votes that were cast in the general election. In other words, IRV allowed between 11–25 percent greater participation in the runoff process.
Prior to the opening of early voting, the sample ballot provided by the Shelby County Election Commission asked voters to vote “yes” or “no” on these measures. Some early voters were surprised to find that on the actual ballot, they were asked to vote “for” or “against” adopting the resolutions. To clarify, voters wishing to implement IRV should vote “against” the second and third measures. Voting “for” the second item would overturn the 2008 election that approved IRV. Voting “for” the third referendum would implement the plurality vote in single-member council districts.
Eric Gottlieb is a professor of mathematics at Rhodes College and a Memphian for 20 years. His published works include a paper on voting theory.
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