Deferred again, the Nashville city council punted on the issue of introducing ranked-choice voting in municipal elections. The proposal was brought forth by councilmember Rosenberg to limit the city’s reliance on runoff elections. As it currently stands, several candidates run for each council seat in a nonpartisan race. If no one wins a majority of the vote, a runoff election between the two candidates with the most votes is scheduled. Some have complained that these runoff elections are unnecessarily time consuming and costly. Local elections typically experience low voter turnout, making runoff elections especially vexing for some. Rosenberg noted that council seat 29, vacant in lieu of a runoff scheduled for March 2019, could have been filled “months ago” with ranked-choice voting.
I attended the Nashville City Council meeting on Tuesday, February 19th. In this post, I argue that ranked-choice voting in Nashville is problematic because of the lack of necessary oversight and independent authentication to such a voting system. This has negative implications for local democratic institutions because it could prevent state election regulators from properly overseeing important local elections, while simultaneously emboldening other local governments to follow suit.
What is Ranked-Choice Voting?
With ranked-choice voting, citizens rank candidate preferences first, second, third and so on. If no candidate wins fifty percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second-choice preferences of voters who listed the eliminated candidate first are awarded to those candidates. If no one still has fifty percent, the process repeats until a winner is identified. If a person ranks the lowest-garnering candidate first and the second lowest second, if the process must be repeated then that person’s third choice vote would be given to the corresponding candidate.
Cause for Concern
The citizens of Nashville should be especially wary of this proposal for a few reasons. First, ranked-choice voting is not utilized anywhere else in Tennessee. Because of this, the Secretary of State has not adopted rules or statutes regulating it. There is no contingency plan for machines failing, no oversight from the state, and no recourse if election meddling is suspected. I spoke with a co-coordinator of elections with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office who asked to remain anonymous. They were most concerned with the lack of an approved algorithm on voting machines, citing dangerously little oversight from regulators. Without the ability to monitor the algorithms to ensure transparency, there would be no way for the state to certify disputed election results. The state would be paralyzed if called upon to help resolve conflicts.
In 2017, state election coordinator Mark Goins sent a letter to the city of Memphis after councilmembers pushed a similar initiative. In the letter, Goins echoed many of the same concerns coming from state election officials today: there are no statutes or rules governing the new practice. Ranked-choice voting was added to the city charter in 2008 but has never been implemented as no voting machines in the city can accommodate the necessary algorithms.
To further muddy the water, Memphis voters decided on two ballot initiatives in the November 2018 elections. One upheld using runoff elections in the city, while the other defeated an attempt to remove ranked-choice voting from the city charter.
Now, Tennessee’s two largest cities are looking to implement a new voting system that cannot be properly governed by the state. The co-coordinator I spoke with asked, “who would then be overseeing the Nashville city council elections?” And paused, “just the city council.” To some, this may be a benign case of miscommunication between local municipalities and state government; however, we should be especially wary of the underlying challenge to democratic institutions that this implies. Sometimes, lots of bureaucracy can be a good thing. A certain air of officialdom exists around U.S. elections for a reason. We enjoy a precedent in which the immediate aftermath of our elections is generally calm. This exists because of our satisfaction not with those whom we elect, but by the processes we know are in place. When it comes to elections, having layers of regulators combined with whistle blowers and concerned citizens makes for good democratic process. If our state is unable to stand by the election results of our largest cities, we can expect a degradation of the public’s confidence in local elections. This is especially harmful for contests plagued by the least amount of public participation.
The potential for manipulating local elections is real. It is hard to fully realize the impact outside interference could have without state support for municipal races. This could potentially create a panic in which questions surrounding the efficacy of elections could go unanswered. The checks that would no longer be in place under ranked-choice voting are essential to a thriving democracy.
American politics faces a myriad of issues today. Polarization and sorting have pulled the two parties as far from the middle as they have ever been. Questions surrounding special interest groups and big money in politics are still largely up in the air. A contentious presidential election, now shrouded in scandal from foreign meddling, drives people still further apart. Not surprisingly, Americans have the least amount of trust in government ever recorded. Local elections must not slide into the quagmire of national political problems. City council elections should remain solidly within the purview of state election officials. This is a simple yet potentially powerful erosion of democratic institutions at the local level. A huge headache possibly waits just around the corner. Cities should consider the consequences of their actions prior to implementing such big changes.
*Photo by CBRE Commercial Real Estate, Nashville Office