A statewide organization dedicated to democracy reform presented a demonstration of a different type of voting system to interested residents in East Chattanooga Friday night.
Ranked choice allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, with the goal being to eliminate runoff elections, save money and enhance the voter experience.
This method of electing candidates has been adopted in several cities and sparingly by several states around the country but not implemented in all the places that adopted it.
We see some potential for its use in primary elections where there are numerous candidates, where party officials may have some say in choosing the mechanism for selecting nominees, but believe too many drawbacks currently exist for its use in general elections.
The media advisory sent by Ranked Choice Tennessee ahead of Friday's demonstration cites as an example the District 9 Chattanooga City Council race in 2017.
In that race, 24.3% of district voters cast a ballot in the March 7 city election, with none of the four candidates winning a majority (and incumbent Yusuf Hakeem leading with 41.2%). Per city charter, a runoff election was held on April 11, with only 12.1% of district voters casting a ballot (and Demetrus Coonrod winning over Hakeem with 59.9% of the vote).
"RCV (ranked choice voting) is able to level the playing field in elections," state program director Aaron Fowles said. "Consider the fact that turnout dropped 50% in District 9. RCV would have allowed all voters to have their voices fully heard with just one trip to the ballot box."
Had the voting been implemented, voters on March 7 would have selected their first- through fourth-place preferences on the ballot. Since Pat Benson Jr. finished fourth, he would have been eliminated, and the second through fourth choices of his voters would be added to the first three.
If one of the other three did not receive a majority, third-place finisher John Kerns would be eliminated, and the second and third choices of his voters would be added to the first two, selecting between Hakeem and Coonrod but — again — doing it on election night rather than more than a month later.
In local Hamilton County general elections since 2010, none of which use runoffs, ranked choice would have affected nearly a dozen races. Six of those were Hamilton County Board of Education races, three were Republican primary races for Hamilton County Commission, assessor of property and Criminal Court judge, one was a special race for Hamilton County General Sessions judge and one was a Democratic primary race for state representative.
Of the plurality winners in those races, Karitsa Mosley Jones captured the smallest percentage of vote, 33.9%, in taking her first Board of Education race in 2014. Five other winners took their seats or their places on a general election ballot with 39.1% or less of the vote.
Memphis voters in 2008 approved ranked choice voting for municipal elections, and it was supposed to take effect in 2011, but the Shelby County Election Commission delayed implementation for another eight years. In 2018, an attempt was made to amend the city charter and repeal it, but voters rejected the repeal. Earlier this year, though, state elections coordinator Mark Goins said its use was not "consistent with the mandates of federal and state law."
Currently, it is used in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland and Malta and has been implemented in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina in congressional primary contests with more than two candidates and to ensure military and overseas ballots are counted in runoff elections.
Proponents say ranked choice voting will increase turnout, reduce negative campaigning (because candidates may need your second- and third-place votes) and allow independent candidates to have a better shot at winning elections.
Critics say it potentially doesn't allow some voters to have a say in whom is elected. If a voter only ranks three candidates in a five-person race because the voter believes the other two are too odious even to be considered, and the voter's top three candidates are eliminated, the voter has had no say in the final outcome.
They also say it attracts more one-note candidates, hoping for victories with second- or third-place votes, and more fringe candidates in general, for whom strong candidates might suggest their voters make their second- and third-place choices instead of a second stronger candidate.
For those who find the simple exercise of voting complicated, it also might be more confusing than our current system.
No, while some experimentation with ranked choice voting might be interesting, we think Tennessee organizations ought to spend their time simply encouraging more citizens to vote. The Volunteer State has been in the bottom 10 of states for voter turnout in seven of the last eight national elections, and Hamilton County's turnout rate is equally poor.
If more people go to the polls and educate themselves on the issues and voting in general, we might be more enthusiastic about ranked choice.