Steve Mulroy

Steven Mulroy is a University of Memphis law professor, former Shelby County Commissioner, and author of a forthcoming book on election reform.

Some public officials are trying explain away the recent referendum results

By Published: December 12, 2018 4:00 AM CT

 “Confirmation bias” refers to the tendency to only credit information which reinforces your own view.

We need another term (maybe “incumbency blindness”?) for the tendency of those in power to explain away any election result that doesn’t favor their view.

That’s what we’re in danger of seeing with the City Council and the recent referendum results.

We meant what we said 

Memphis voters resoundingly rejected two different attempts to repeal Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), where voters can choose to rank their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd candidate preferences.

IRV saves time and money on unnecessary, low-turnout runoff elections. It also avoids the “vote-splitting” problem of plurality elections, where the majority of voters split their vote among several candidates, and someone wins with less than 50% of the vote whom the majority considers their least favorite.

But some (not all) City Council members are trying to explain away these results as somehow not representative. Those incumbents supported repeal of prior referendum results on term limits and IRV because those election reforms make elections more competitive.

Voters didn’t understand what they were voting on, some of them say. But Memphians voted decisively for IRV in a record turnout 2008 election, when they had to vote “YES.”

They did so in 2018, in a record turnout midterm election, when they had to vote “NO.” They supported IRV last month in the face of not one but two different IRV repeal attempts—one pitching wasteful runoff elections (63% Against), the other anti-majoritarian plurality elections (54% Against).

To date, Memphians have supported IRV in a total of three different referendums.

Memphians voted for IRV in the midst of a high-intensity, high-publicity campaign, with virtually wall-to-wall local media coverage in the last few weeks, big-name out-of-town celebrities weighing in on both sides, and substantial sums from both sides being spent on voter outreach.

And they did so despite tax dollars being spent on a misleading campaign, and deliberately misleading ballot question language.

To say that Memphis hasn’t cast an intelligent vote supporting IRV is to deny democracy itself.

An end to obstruction

Fortunately, some on the City Council recognize this. No matter their personal feelings about IRV, they acknowledge that the people have spoken, and they’re willing to listen.

The Election Commission is ready to implement IRV in the next city election in October 2019. All local officials-City Council, Election Commission, and others-should be preparing for that.

This means no more attempts to get Nashville to pass a state law banning IRV, short-circuiting our referendum process and making a mockery of home rule.

The Council actually used tax dollars to try this last year. Hopefully, now, after the referendum results, they’ll know better.

It means no more using City resources to challenge IRV in court. Because of opposition by officials in Nashville, concerned Memphians have had to sue the state to get a declaration that IRV is indeed legal, the law of the land, and must be implemented. The City Council is not a named party, and should not intervene.

At the same time, the Election Commission had previously filed administrative proceedings in Nashville on a parallel track regarding IRV.

It did not name the City Council as a party, but the City Council went out of its way to intervene, using Memphis tax dollars to join with our Nashville overlords in arguing that that we’re not legally allowed to follow the people’s will regarding IRV. They should stand down.

Getting ready to implement

But it means more than that. It means affirmatively cooperating with the desire of Memphians to try IRV.

Shelby County Election Administrator Linda Phillips has asked that the City Council provide policy guidance on certain technical questions about IRV implementation, like what to do in case of a tie.

The City Council can quite easily provide that guidance, easing the way for smooth implementation. Or it can obstinately refuse, forcing the courts to decide. If it listens to the people, it will do the former.

Our local state legislative delegation faces a similar crossroads. Some of them opposed IRV in the recent referendum, as they had every right to do. But now that the people have spoken, they should respect the people’s voice. They should refrain from state legislation interfering with IRV.

Indeed, they should support “local option” legislation which would allow each municipality holding nonpartisan elections to decide for itself if IRV is right for them. This is consistent with the “home rule” ethic Memphis has championed for years.

And lest one think such enlightened legislation is too much to ask of our deeply conservative state legislature, recall that just recently, the state legislature in deep-red Utah passed similar legislation.

Dozens of local jurisdictions are deciding as we speak whether they’d like to try an election system that saves time and money, boosts turnout, ensures majority-supported outcomes, encourages positive campaigning, and levels the playing field for non-incumbents.

At the start of the Trump administration, it tried and failed to achieve repeal of Obamacare. At that point, it was faced with a choice—follow the law in good faith, or seek to undermine it at every step. To the Trump administration’s eternal discredit, it chose the latter, bad faith path, actively undermining the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, preferring mulishness and uncertainty to serving the good of the people.

Our local leaders now face a similar choice. Some of them saw a referendum result they didn’t like. They can let it stick in their craw, or they can serve the people’s will.

<strong>Steve Mulroy</strong>

Steve Mulroy


Referendums City Council IRV Shelby County Election Commission

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