Commentary: Dumbfounded

State GOP admission: We have low intelligence and govern accordingly

February 10, 2022 7:00 am
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: John Partipilo)

For years rational Tennesseans have marveled at the breathtaking festival of puerility that the GOP-dominated state legislature convenes each spring. I’m not talking about things on which they and I might part company ideologically; with big majorities they do get to pursue their agenda. I’m talking about the stuff that moves well past the foothills of political division into the rugged lands of the unhinged. 

Classic examples are the bills that that are patently unconstitutional from the get go, ensuring court challenges after passage that inevitably prevail. And since losers pay the winners’ costs in constitutional lawsuits, Tennessee taxpayers end up footing the bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal work. This has become so predictable a pattern that if Tennessee had a state metal detector it would be the one at the federal courthouse.

Now, thanks to a bill spearheaded by intrepid West Tennessee Sen. Brian Kelsey, a window into the hearts and minds of his fellow Tennessee Republicans has been opened wide for all to see. It turns out that we Republicans are actually quite stupid, Kelsey is saying of his party and its constituents. We have low intelligence, are easily confused, and so cannot be trusted with even mildly sophisticated matters of public governance.

Ranked choice voting is used all over America, even in conservative states like Utah, but Sen. Brian Kelsey thinks that it’s too complex for Tennesseans to understand.

The vehicle for this refreshing slice of candor is Kelsey’s bill SB1820, now before the legislature, which bars counties from using the process known as “ranked choice voting” (RCV) in any local or state election. RCV, in simple terms, has voters rank the candidates on a ballot in order of preference. For elections (like Nashville’s for mayor) where a majority is required to win, often necessitating a costly runoff, ranked choice voting yields the runoff outcome right away (which is why RCV is also known as “instant runoff” voting). 

Kelsey says that RCV is “a very confusing and complex way of doing elections, and one that does not create voter confidence in the counting system and outcomes.” And he’s right: it is confusing and complex – if you’re a moron – which Sen. Kelsey obviously believes is the modal Tennessee Republican voter. 

And do you want to know where RCV is not so confusing and complex? How about everywhere! Ok not quite everywhere but an awful lot of places are apparently sufficiently free of Kelsey-level imbecility to navigate the complexity:

  • RCV is used In around two dozen states, red, blue, and purple, in a variety of electoral contexts;
  • Six red southern states use RCV for overseas ballots.
  • Outside the US RCV is in use in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and others.
  • And lest you think it’s a liberal plot, it is used in two dozen cities and towns in Utah alone.

Kelsey’s bill is not just impossibly dumb, it’s also odious because it furthers the contemptible practice of preemption. That’s when state lawmakers bar localities from doing perfectly sensible things on their own, raising minimum wages or barring forms of discrimination or legalizing pot. Ranked choice voting is just the latest victim in this notorious penchant for nullifying local control: we don’t like the decision you might make, so we’ll just forbid you from making it. 

Let me hasten to say that there are valid arguments against using RCV, but that’s for individual municipalities to ponder. In barring RCV everywhere and across the board, Kelsey and his GOP comrades say to their constituents: you’re too stupid to rank things in order so we’ll just make it illegal to rank things in order. Now that’s good government!

Kelsey’s bill and its House companion HB1868 have cleared committees and are headed for floor debates, and of course they will pass since a party too dim to rank a few choices clearly doesn’t have the cognitive chops to know a bad bill when they see one. On the upside, foolish though it is, the bill doesn’t raise constitutional issues, so this is one piece of spring GOP folly we taxpayers won’t have to bail out on the losing end of a lawsuit.

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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.