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Referendum Items on the Memphis Ballot

Election Day — Tuesday, November 6 — is right around the corner, and everything is a hot mess.

There’s been a lot going on, with a lot of political jargon being tossed around. It’s hard to keep up with, even if you’re trying to be as informed as possible.

So, I’m writing this post to try to cut through some of the confusion as best as I can. I want us to work together to figure out what the hell is going on.

Specifically, I want to talk about the three referendum items that are on the ballot, what they mean and the dysfunction that has been surrounding them.

The referendums have been called confusing and self-contradictory. A celebrity has spoken out against them and there’s even a lawsuit about them.

The first one is ordinance #5676. It reads as follows:

“Shall the Charter of the City of Memphis, Tennessee be amended to provide no person shall be eligible to hold or to be elected to the office of Mayor or Memphis City Council if any such person has served at any time more than three (3) consecutive four-year terms, except that service by persons elected or appointed to fill an unexpired four-year term shall not be counted as full four-year term?”

This item is essentially a term limit item. It’s asking us to decide if the term limit for elected officials should be 3 back-to-back terms, which would be 12 years in office. Right now, there’s a 2 back-to-back term limit, so voting for this item would mean that we are extending the limit.

This item is causing chaos for a few reasons. First of all, it’s hard to read. I’d argue that most people would get frustrated while reading it. Second of all, some feel that extending term limits would give too much power to elected officials and let them stay in office for too long.

Another wrinkle in this particular story is Willie Herenton.

With the way that item is written, Herenton, who was mayor for 5 terms, was in office for 17 years and plans to run again in 2019, would not be allowed to run again.

Herenton has filed suit against the city of Memphis because of this, saying that city leaders are purposefully trying to keep him from running. He’s the only person this limit would apply to.

If all of this wasn’t dramatic enough, one of the city attorneys who drafted the item recently came forward and said that the version of it that’s on the ballot is the wrong version.

The version they meant to put on the ballot was supposed to say that the term limit would only apply to people who took office after the year 2011. Herenton wasn’t in office after 2011 because he left the Mayor’s office in 2008.

The thing is, they can’t change it on the ballot because they didn’t discover the mistake until a couple of weeks ago. So, if the ordinance passes, Herenton can challenge it in court. And that would be a whole other legal battle.

Speaking of legal battles, let’s talk about the next item.

The second item on the ballot is ordinance #5669. It reads:

“Shall the Charter of the City of Memphis, Tennessee, be amended to repeal Instant Runoff Voting and to restore the election procedure existing prior to the 2008 Amendment for all City offices, and expressly retaining the 1991 federal ruling for persons elected to the Memphis City Council single districts?”

Okay, so this is the Instant Runoff Voting referendum. Instant Runoff Voting, also referred to as IRV or ranked choice voting, asks voters to rank candidates in order of who you like best. It’s basically your 1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice, etc. It’s usually for elections where there are more than two candidates, but only one candidate can be the winner.

An example of an IRV ballot

The candidate with the most amount of “1st choice” votes would be declared the winner. If none of them have the majority of “1st choice” votes, then a process of elimination begins. The candidate with the least amount of “1st choice” votes gets tossed out. That candidate’s votes are then redistributed to the other candidates based on who the voters chose as their second choice. The process keeps going until there is a clear winner. IRV makes runoff elections unnecessary.

Right now, there are two camps in Memphis: there is the Save IRV Memphis camp, which argues that we should vote against the item. And there’s the Yes 2 Repeal IRV camp, which argues that we should vote for the item.

Save IRV is arguing that it will cost the city a lot less money than runoff elections do. In runoff elections, candidates have to re-raise money to campaign again in elections that have very low voter turnout.

They’re also arguing that Memphis voters already have voted in favor of IRV: back in 2008, IRV won over the majority of voters, but it was never put into place because the Election Commission said they’re machines weren’t set up for it.

The Yes 2 Repeal IRV camp is arguing that IRV could potentially lead to discrimination and an unfair redistribution of votes. They’re saying that your vote could potentially go to a candidate who isn’t the one you wanted to win. They also argue that, in the past, IRV has led to a decrease in minority voter turnout and increased voter disenfranchisement.

Recently, the Memphis City Council voted to approve funds for an educational campaign on the three referendums. Members of Save IRV argued that an educational campaign from the city council would be a conflict of interests considering that all three of the items would directly affect elected officials. Save IRV Memphis filed a suit against the Memphis City Council.

On Friday, Oct. 26, a Chancery Court judge issued an injunction against the Memphis City Council, stopping them from spending $40,000 on the educational campaign.

The second item is a pretty involved case. But you know what’s funny about it? The second item isn’t going to matter all that much if the third item passes.

It won’t matter because the third item gets rid of runoff elections all together.

Ordinance #5677. It reads:

“Shall the Carter of the City of Memphis, Tennessee be amended to provide that in any municipal election held as required by law, the candidate receiving the largest number of votes shall be declared the winner, thereby eliminating run-off elections?”

I’mma be very real right now. The inclusion of this item makes no sense to me. Why have a referendum that would eliminate run-off elections if you also have a referendum that would repeal IRV, which already makes runoff elections unnecessary?

Let’s say both of those pass, and IRV gets repealed while runoff elections get eliminated. If you don’t have instant runoff voting or runoff elections, how you finna elect somebody?! How, Sway?! Are we just going to have to hope that we don’t have anymore tight races in the history of Memphis?

The contradictory language is part of the reason there was a lawsuit filed about these referendum items. Some say they need to be rewritten, but they really need to be totally re-conceived.

For the past few weeks, as things get more and more complicated, I’ve been thinking about how the average Memphis city doesn’t have time for all of this foolishness. They don’t have time to keep up with who is suing who and which city councilman is arguing with which activist on Facebook.

And they aren’t going to want to try to translate these items when they’re in a polling booth. Why would they? They’ve been working all day and probably have a million things on their minds.

I truly believe that voter apathy in this city is partially caused by the confusion surrounding every damn election we have.

Worse yet, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of voter education going on. There’s a whole lot of “GO VOTE” going on, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of “Let’s talk through this voting thing and how these candidates/new rules would affect you.”

So that’s what this is. This is my attempt at “let’s talk through this.” I don’t know how effective it will be, or how effective I can ever be. But I want to do something that would help inform voters. Because informed, free voting is one of the tools we need to make real change in this city.


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