By Steven J. Mulroy
This past July, we saw how local election administration problems can threaten to suppress voters. The plan for scaling back early voting locations would have made it harder for voters, particularly black and Democratic voters, to vote early.
This is an example of a structural impediment to voting threatening to skew the vote. Sure, most voters—black, Democratic, and otherwise—would still be able to vote, and any voter who was really determined to vote would get a chance to do so, but the net effect would be less participation overall. And whenever you make things harder and lower participation, you especially lower it among lower-income, minority, and mobility-impaired voters (seniors, disabled, etc.).
The same is true with Instant Runoff Voting, which Memphians passed with 71% support in a 2008 referendum, and which the Election Commission has been slow-walking for 10 years. Currently, the law is IRV–voters will get to rank their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices for Memphis City Council elections, and will only have to show up at the polls once. There will be no need for a “runoff” election, because we can use the rankings for that purpose. After years of excuses, the Election Commission is finally ready to implement IRV in the 2019 City Council elections.
If the City Council gets its way, the IRV repeal referendum passes this November, and we return to the old two-round runoff voting system, the effect will be just like what the Election Commission tried to do with early voting: turnout will decrease across the board, but especially among black, poor, and disabled voters.
Early voting is not the only issue with the local Election Commission. For years, we have seen problems with the official vote counts, election results overturned with election contests, and a general mistrust of the vote counting process. For years, local activists, led by County Commissioner Steve Mulroy and others, have pushed for a voter-verified “paper trail” system. This would allow us to use paper records to check against the “black box” computer results in case of a close result, a computer glitch, or an accusation of fraud.
This is yet another connection to IRV. If we go forward with IRV, the Election Commission will use paper printouts of ballot images, rather than the “black box” computer results, to count the votes. This will be done in public, with representatives of the media and all campaigns allowed to observe, in a fully transparent process. This is the same counting system used successfully for years in Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN. Thus, IRV will not only make voting easier, more inclusive, more representative, and less expensive; it will also increase election integrity in Shelby County.
For this reason, IRV opponents have it exactly backwards when they argue that if we can’t trust the Election Commission with regular elections, how can we trust them with IRV? Actually, the IRV election will be the MOST trustworthy of them all, because we will have paper records we can use to check the Election Commission’s work.
The bottom line is, we need a voter-verified paper trail for all elections, as soon as possible. Until that time, though, we’ll improve election integrity by adopting IRV and a manual count. And it will take away one voter suppression tool: second-round runoff elections.
Steven J. Mulroy
Professor of Law
Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law
University of Memphis
1 N. Front Street
Memphis, TN 38103