After 30 yrs. Memphis Runoffs are Back but, Instant

Posted on November 18, 2018 by


Memphis elections for near 30 years were free of runoffs, which pitched the top two vote getters into a political race, that caused African-Americans to never elect their own as Mayor of Memphis.


Judge Otis Higgs

Otis Higgs –  In both 1975 and 1979, the three times candidate for mayor of Memphis lost in runoff elections to Wyeth Chandler. 

J. O. Patterson – Was the first African-American Mayor of Memphis, for 20 days, by

J. O. Patterson

Mayor J. O. Patterson

appointment.  He ran for a full term in 1982 and was the top vote-getter in a special election to replace Mayor Wyeth Chandler.  Patterson got 40 percent of the vote and Dick Hackett came in second with 30 percent.  To avoid a runoff, a candidate would’ve need 50 percent of the vote.  In Memphis, runoff voting favors Caucasian candidates.  Just as Otis Higgs, Bishop J. O. Patterson lost his bid for Mayor in a runoff.


Mayor Wyeth Chandler

A. W. Willis

A. W. Willis

Russell Sugarmon

Honorable Russell Sugarmon

Now comes 2018, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).  Don’t let the word “Instant” fool you.  It’s still that same old runoff tactic that kept African-American candidates suppressed prior to Dr. Willie W. Herenton mayoral victory in 1991.  This constant political and economic wrangling of African-Americans and Caucasians isn’t new. It goes back to the 1800s when African-Americans were elected to political positions and held them until Jim Crow era.  In 1872, Alexander Dickerson won a seat on City Council. In 1892, the last African-American would serve.  They were forced out of elections for seven decades and until A. W. Willis and Russell Sugarmon won a seat on the Tennessee General Assembly in 1964.

Herenton Wins

Mayor Willie W. Herenton

How Ranked Choice Voting works would become the city’s greatest headache.  Voting activists must get started in a massive education campaign to help Memphis voters make the adjustments.  First, voters need to know what is RCV.  Next, what would clearly be the voter’s ultimate goal.  Finally, the various options during the voting process.  RCV is also an opportunity to build future political leaders.  In the top three vote getters process, the top two vote getters could sent a message about their changes in future elections. 

Dick Hackett

Mayor Dick Hackett

Memphis has one of the lowest educational rating in the country, how would that play a role in RCV?  Would voters truly have an ability to select their candidate of choice or could RCV become detrimental in a city with a population of over 65 percent African-American?  Could the minority voters end up controlling the majority?  Is the consensored candidate a dead idea?

These and other questions remain to be answered.  RCV for African-Americans might not become that golden gate of Democracy.  When something new comes along in Memphis politics, history gives way to suspicions. At the beginning of any political process, highly respected African-American “grassroots leaders” must have input.

“Instant” implies simplicity and fun like instant scratch off lottery tickets, but IRV is far from simple.  It’s a complex and sophistication process that requests a great deal of thinking and preparation.  I surmised, IRV could become a long and complex voting process that, without proper training, would altogether, cause many more African-Americans to drop out of the voting process.

Instant Runoff Voting Example

Instant Runoff Voting Example