The Runoff Issue

Flyer Staff // Published May 22, 2008 in Memphis Flyer

The mechanism for holding runoffs in local elections has been muddled ever since the late U.S. district judge Jerome Turner laid down complex guidelines back in 1992 as a way of resolving the racial impasse of that time, when Memphis blacks had not quite come into the full expression of their emerging political majority.

Almost a century's worth of prior election experience had begotten an understandable aversion to the runoff system among the city's African-American voters. So the litigants then representing them in federal court insisted on abolishing the runoff procedure altogether. More often than not, and persistently in the post-war time of civil rights ferment, runoffs had served as devices whereby the "white vote," however split among the candidates in a crowded field, could be refocused on a single standard-bearer against a black challenger.

So Judge Turner responded with a quasi-Solomonic solution, allowing runoff voting only in those city elections taking place in districts — where, presumably, a near homogeneous ethnic factor applied. In city-wide elections, notably in races for mayor, runoffs were proscribed, as they were also in the two at-large super-districts which divided the city into majority-black and majority-white sectors.

In the years since, the racial balance of power has shifted — and with it the rationale for banning runoffs in city voting. Carol Chumney was no doubt destined by a variety of factors to be runner-up to Mayor Willie Herenton in last year's municipal election. It was evident to all, however, that her chances of winning depended at least partly on Herenton's splitting the "black vote" with former MLGW head Herman Morris, who went on to finish third. In other words, the racial demographics had now turned upside down. Blacks were now as likely as whites, if not more so, to be punished by the winner-take-all plurality system. And Memphians of various ethnic descriptions professed themselves, justly or not, to be unsettled by the fact that a controversial mayor had just been returned to office without holding an electoral majority.

That's one problem that cries out to be revisited in the courts.

Meanwhile, the city Charter Commission, in the last throes of preparing ballot initiatives for later this year, has wisely called for a referendum in the way runoffs are held in those districts where, at present, they are judicially permitted. This method, advocated by Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy, is called "instant-runoff" voting, and it provides exactly the relief that its name suggests. Voters would be asked to rank candidates in a 1-2-3 order of preference, and, in the event no one candidate receives an absolute majority, the secondary rankings would be applied in a numerical formula elevating one of the contenders into a technical majority. Instant-runoff voting, if adopted, would add necessary nuance to the election process, prevent splinter candidates from winning outright, and eliminate the need for unnecessarily costly special runoffs to which only a handful of voters pay any attention.

We congratulate the Charter Commission for its action and hereby lend our support to it.