The 9th Circuit has ruled that San Francisco's restricted instant runoff, or “ranked choice,” voting system for city elections is not unconstitutional.
The system for electing the mayor and other city officials allows voters to rank, in order of preference, candidates for a particular office. The city restricts the number of candidates that can be ranked for a given office to three.
In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that all voters participating in a restricted instant runoff voting election are afforded a single and equal opportunity to express their preferences for three candidates; voters can use all three preferences or fewer if they choose.
Ron Dudum had sued the city, maintaining that when more than four candidates run for a particular office, the restricted instant runoff voting system precluded some groups of voters from participating to the same extent as others, and violated equal protection, due process, and the First Amendment.
The District Court ruled in favor of San Francisco.
In affirming the lower court’s decision, the appeals court reasoned that San Francisco's voting system was not analogous to limitations on voting in successive elections, because no voter was denied an opportunity to cast a ballot at the same time and with the same degree of choice among candidates available to other voters. The court was not persuaded that the city's election system imposed any serious burdens on voters' constitutional rights by providing unequal opportunities to cast ballots.
The tabulation scheme under San Francisco's system did not burden voters' constitutional voting rights by effectively discarding, rather than counting, the votes from “exhausted” ballots, the appeals court said. A more complete explication of the tabulation process demonstrated that “exhausted” ballots are counted in the election as votes for losing candidates, just as if a voter had selected a losing candidate in a plurality or runoff election.
The court of appeals found that the three-candidate restriction furthered important interests in maintaining the orderly administration of San Francisco's elections and in avoiding voter confusion. Restricted instant runoff voting also advanced the city's legitimate interests in providing voters an opportunity to express nuanced voting preferences and electing candidates with strong plurality support.
The court concluded that these important governmental interests were more than sufficient to outweigh the extremely limited burdens — if any — that the restricted instant runoff voting system imposed upon San Francisco's voters.
Dudum v. Arntz, No. 10-17198 (9th Cir. May 20, 2011)
(Reporting by Ronald Owens, Principal Attorney Editor, San Francisco)