I’m not the most avid reader of the Smart City blog, but my friend and brother Leftwing Cracker sent me a piece of theirs today that raised my eyebrows— And didn’t all at the same time.
From Smart City:
*Willie W. Herenton 16.38 percent
* Carol Chumney 13.35 percent
* Herman Morris 8.21 percent
Those abysmal numbers are the turnout from the city elections last Thursday. And that’s the top of the ticket— It doesn’t even factor in the trailing off that we typically see once we get to the bottom of the ticket and ordinary voters are starting to see names that they don’t recognize. I suspect that the typical full third quit paying attention by the time they got down to court clerk positions.
On November 2, 2004 (Black Tuesday, as most Democrats know it), voter turnout in Shelby County was 373,409. It was a presidential year, and both parties put on impressive Get Out The Vote campaigns.
Two years later, turnout was down a little bit. That’s to be expected— Midterm elections always draw a little bit less than presidential years. 284,217 turned out to vote.
The top four candidates for mayor got only 163,633 votes— And I’m defining “top” very loosely, as John Willingham’s sad 1118 votes were counted in that total (Total votes cast are not yet available from the Election Commission). We have yet to find out whether all were actually alive when they cast their votes, but those are the numbers as of now.
It’s clear that some things have to change— So the rest of this post is directed toward the members of the Charter Commission, who are the only ones in a real position to implement the necessary changes.
First, we need to change the election cycles in this city. We certainly can’t do anything about the federally mandated cycles— Nothing can change there, nor should it. Every two years sounds perfectly reasonable.
For the moment, let’s assume that you live in the Evergreen district in Midtown. You voted in the Shelby County primary on May 2, 2006. Three months later, you went to the polls to vote in the Congressional primary and county general election. In November, you went to the polls yet again to vote in the congressional general election. That’s three times in the span of nine months that you’ve had to take time off from work and get out and stand in line at the polls.
Of course, if you live in Evergreen, your State Senator, Steve Cohen, was sent to the US Congress in November. So on January 25 of this year, you voted in a primary to decide who would go on to the special election— Which you voted in two months later.
Your state rep was elected to fill the vacancy in the state senate— So it’s time for yet another primary in May 2007. And another general election in July 2007.
Three months later, it’s time for the city election. For Evergreen residents, that is eight votes in the last year and a half (Depending on where you live in the city, you might well have a runoff in a few weeks that could easily be alleviated by another of my proposals.).
Personally, I’m experiencing voter fatigue, and I haven’t had as many votes as them. I shared their fatigue part of the way, as my address falls into the same Senate district, but I was able to coast from March to October election-free— And even that seven months didn’t feel like much of a break.
We have got to quit holding municipal elections in an off year. I realize why the politicians that made that choice did so in the first place— It allows them not only greater access to the finest election staff out there, but it allows them to buy air time to annoy us with at a much cheaper rate than in a year where there’s a congressional, or God forbid, a presidential election season.
This isn’t about the cost of holding elections on off years. Democracy is always well worth an investment that pays off. But this one has not.
I can already hear you saying it. “But Rick, that’s going to be a ridiculously long ballot”. I’ve got such good hearing that I heard it before you said it. How about that? But don’t worry— I’ve got an answer for you.
There are elected positions that are so obscure that not even a politico such as I really gives much of a damn who fills them. Unless Republicans and Democrats use a different alphabet, I really do not care who is filing papers in the courts. And to be perfectly frank, the only people who do are the ones running for the position. I have no issue with a position such as that one being filled on an appointment basis. Unlike the voter, the Shelby County Commission/Memphis City Council would at least get the opportunity to confirm whether or not the candidates did indeed know the alphabet.
These positions exist merely as a Single A team for players to earn experience on before trying out for the AAA team. And that’s simply the wrong reason to hold an election.
For many Memphis voters, it’s still not over yet. The elections are a gift that just keeps on giving, as several city council races aren’t even over yet.
This could easily have been taken care of in one night rather than spreading the misery over several more weeks. And there is a solution that has been employed in areas before us, works very well, and gives the voter a much needed break.
It’s called Instant Runoff Voting.
It sounds a lot tougher than it is. Instead of simply voting for a candidate, you list your candidates in order of preference.
We’ll take the Mayor’s race as an example. Let’s say I walked in and broke it down with Morris as my #1 choice, Herenton as my #2, Chumney as my #3, and Willingham at #4 if I even chose to rank him at all (And it should be noted at this point that you are not required to pick so much as a second place. If you were a hardcore Morris guy and wanted to be sure your vote went to no one but him, you would be well within your rights).
If the race was close enough to demand a runoff, judging from the results the other day, Morris would have been voted off the island first. His votes would be cast out, and my vote would have been among the thousands redistributed to Herenton and Chumney.
Might it have led to a Mayor Chumney? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But there is one feature built into Instant Runoff Voting that would have all political hacks salivating—
It completely nullifies the “spoiler” vote. Can there be any doubt that the Democratic votes Mary Wilder managed to leech would have ended up going to Desi Franklin?
That’s not to say that it would work out in favor of Democrats all of the time— In one of my favorite races this year, assuming that all of Joe Saino’s voters would have picked Kemp Conrad as their second choice, and Frank Langston’s would have made Shea Flinn their #2, Conrad would have won that race by 1500 votes.
But it’s not about partisan angling at this point. Voter apathy is spreading like a sickness across this city, and most elements of it— Namely Voter Fatigue— Are utterly preventable. We simply need leaders who are willing to step up and make the right choices.
And at this point, it falls on the Charter Commission. As they rewrite the Memphis City Charter, they need to ask themselves— Do we do right by the gladhanding politicians that thrive on vote suppression, or do we give Memphians a greater voice?