Before taking the top leadership post in Chattanooga Monday, Mayor Tim Kelly might have been thinking about the city budget, his top staff appointments or his 100-day plan, but he told the Times Free Press he had something else in mind — eliminating runoff elections.
His idea, he said, is to prevent short turnaround times for future administrations, and we can certainly sympathize with that. He had only five days since winning his runoff election Tuesday night and being inaugurated Monday to finalize his plans, make key appointments and prepare for taking office.
The only other mayor elected in a runoff since Chattanooga adopted its mayor-council form of government in 1990, Ron Littlefield in 2005, faced the same short turnaround time.
Kelly told the newspaper he would introduce a ballot measure to eliminate the need for runoff elections. He added that he was a "big fan" of ranked-choice voting, a system where voters rank candidates on an ordinal scale — first choice, second choice and so forth.
"I would love to see the city embrace ranked-choice voting in nonpartisan elections," he said. "There's no reason on Earth why we shouldn't do it. ... [I]t will save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars."
But, lacking that, Kelly said, he advocates reform of the current system, which in the city charter calls for a primary election on the first Tuesday in March and a runoff on the second Tuesday in April. He said three weeks between the primary and runoff elections might be the right amount.
We would concur with the new mayor on shortening the runoff period, but we don't believe ranked-choice is the way to go.
Any change would mean altering the city's charter, which likely would need to be placed on a future ballot.
A three-week turnaround, if no other changes were made, would mean a quick turnaround for registration and for early voting. Whether the Hamilton County Election Commission would deem it feasible is uncertain. A call to administrator of elections Scott Allen wasn't returned Monday.
What is certain is that Memphis and Nashville both considered and abandoned ranked-choice voting. Mark Goins, coordinator of elections for the state of Tennessee, stated in opinions in 2017 and 2019 that he does not believe Tennessee's constitution allows ranked-choice voting.
Memphis voters, in a city charter amendment in 2008 and in a referendum in 2018, voted to move to ranked-choice voting. Originally, it was not implemented because the city's then-voting equipment could not tabulate the votes.
In between the two votes, Goins said, "The process of manually distributing votes and having multiple rounds of reallocating votes to determine the winner is not authorized by any of the current statutes in Tennessee law."
Nevertheless, the Memphis City Council gave its nod for a 2018 referendum, and then voters approved keeping ranked-choice voting. The following February, the Shelby County Election Commission asked Goins for a formal opinion on whether it might be implemented. In that opinion and declaratory order, he said the election commission could not implement ranked-choice voting under state law. And if it were legal under state law, he said, some of its procedures would violate the Memphis city charter. Subsequently, the election commission voted not to appeal Goins' opinion.
Three months later, in May 2019, Nashville Metro Council members did not vote in favor of putting ranked-choice voting on the ballot in a package of charter amendments that would be voted on that August.
In recent years, bills have been introduced in the Tennessee legislature both to allow and to forbid ranked-choice voting.
A 2018 bill by state Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, would have prohibited a county or municipality from using instant runoff voting for purposes of conducting a primary, general, or special election. A 2019 bill by state Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, would have allowed ranked-choice voting in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga if voters in those cities approved charter amendments.
Neither bill got any traction.
Alaska and Maine now use ranked-choice voting for all congressional and state elections, while it is used in several Democratic-heavy cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, Portland, Maine, and San Francisco, where Republicans rarely have strong candidates. But far-left Massachusetts turned it down by a nearly 55-45 majority in November, with Secretary of State William Galvin saying "it's complex, and many voters didn't really grasp what it would mean for them."
If Massachusetts — ranked as No. 1 among states for education in several 2021 polls — was unable to understand the ranked-choice process, we don't believe Tennesseans would be comfortable with it.
So we hope Kelly will concentrate — once he finishes his budget, his hiring and his 100-day plan — on shortening the weeks between the primary and runoff election. If doable by the Hamilton County Election Commission, it would be easier on candidates and voters alike.