Memphis politicos sue state election coordinator over instant runoff voting

By: - February 14, 2022 3:41 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A group of Memphis political activists has sued Tennessee’s elections coordinator because of his efforts to stop instant runoff voting, which Shelby County voters approved 14 years ago.

The plaintiffs, Erika Sugarmon, John Marek, Samuel Goff, Britney Thornton and Ranked Choice Tennessee filed their complaint Feb. 7 in Davidson County Chancery Court in support of the voting method that enables voters to rank candidates in elections, also called rank choice voting. This is their fourth filing to reverse decisions against instant runoff voting by Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, a former state representative.

Erica Sugarmon. (Photo: Twitter)
Erica Sugarmon. (Photo: Twitter)

Instant ranked voting “promotes good government and less ideologically fractious candidates need to compete not only for a vote but also for rankings that might not be the first ranking in order to secure victory,” the lawsuit states. “This encourages candidates to communicate with and appeal to a broader swath of voters than they might otherwise.”

The group claims instant runoff voting also saves governments and candidates money by eliminating runoff elections if no candidate receives a majority of the votes.

In addition, the group contends the method gives a better opportunity to lesser-known candidates who are not funded as well and might be “dismissed” by voters as “throwing away their vote.” Thus, it could make elections more competitive and increase voter participation, the filing claims.

The Senate and House are set to consider legislation Monday night prohibiting instant runoff voting. The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and the House version by Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville.

Memphis voters adopted a charter amendment in 2008 mandating instant runoff voting unless the Shelby County Election Commission determined its machines couldn’t handle that form of voting. In 2017, new Shelby County Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips announced instant runoff voting could be done on the county’s existing voting machines and planned to use it in the 2019 Memphis City Council election.

memphis election

But Goins, “apparently alarmed by Shelby County’s attempts to implement the will of its citizens,” informed Phillips in 2017 that instant runoff voting was illegal and could not be done in Tennessee “based on strained readings and invented limitations” in Tennessee counties, according to the filing. 

“Thus began this multi-year saga whereby (Goins) has attempted to thwart all attempts at judicial review of his arbitrary and capricious decision to deny Tennessee citizens their preferred method of election tabulation,” the lawsuit states. “But the coordinator has run out of excuses and delay tactics.”

The plaintiffs ask the court to review Goins’ final order and reverse it as “arbitrary and capricious.”

The Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, did not respond immediately to requests for comment.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.