NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers passed a ban Monday against instant runoff voting in elections, a move that seeks to end a long-running legal dispute between state election officials and the city of Memphis. Voters there still haven't used the method since voting in 2008 to adopt it for city elections.
The state House and Senate, where Republicans hold supermajorities, cast votes on the same day for the proposal outlawing instant runoff voting, which is also known as ranked choice voting. Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins has ruled that the approach isn't allowed under state law.
For years, the issue has been tied up in administrative challenges against the state and lawsuits. One lawsuit filed last week by four voters and a group backing the change claims the elections coordinator's decision that instant runoff voting is illegal in Tennessee is “unsupported by the law, unsupported by the evidence, and was arbitrary, capricious, or a clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.”
The system lets voters rank choices, avoiding runoffs when no candidate tops 50%. Officials across the country adopt different rules on which races it’ll apply to and how it’ll be set up. Advocates say it's a positive that voters can rank a candidate at the top, even if they suspect that candidate doesn’t stand a chance, and still see the rest of their rankings matter.
If Republican Gov. Bill Lee signs the bill, the lawsuits could be quickly rendered moot. The legislative push also marks the latest tussle between Republican state officials and left-leaning cities, including majority-Black Memphis.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, the Republican bill sponsor from Germantown in Memphis' Shelby County, has criticized the voting method, claiming it's a “very confusing and complex process that ultimately, I think, leads to lack of confidence in the vote totals.” Two Memphis Democrats - Reps. Joe Towns and Barbara Cooper - co-sponsored the ban bill.
More than 50 jurisdictions are expected to use ranked-choice voting in some capacity in their next election, including Maine, Alaska, New York City and a growing number of other local elections across the country, according to the group FairVote, which supports instant runoff voting. It's also used in a handful of states to sort out presidential primaries - mostly on the Democratic side - and at some party nominating conventions, including in the 2021 governor's race in Virginia.
Chris Saxman, a former Republican Virginia state lawmaker, testified to Tennessee lawmakers that the Virginia GOP nominating convention showed ranked choice voting is “a very useful tool in the electoral toolbox.” Saxman is the executive director of Virginia FREE, which provides political information for that state's business community.
Memphis voters approved city election instant runoff voting in 2008, unless voting equipment made it not yet feasible for the next election, and rejected a 2018 referendum attempt to repeal the voting method.
In July 2017, Shelby County elections administrator Linda Phillips announced plans for instant runoff voting in 2019 municipal elections.
In September 2017, Goins told the county elections administrator that Tennessee law doesn’t allow ranked-choice voting.
Beth Henry-Robertson, Tennessee's assistant elections coordinator, told lawmakers this month that even if ranked choice were allowed, the state would need more specifics from Memphis officials on how to implement it.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, wondered what sparked the push to outlaw a voting approach that hasn't been used in Tennessee yet.
“It's an innovation that might work, and it might not,” Yarbro said. “But I don't know why we would snuff that out in the crib.”