vote_lede_template.jpgA federal judge said at a court hearing today he is inclined to reject a citizens’ challenge to San Francisco’s instant runoff voting system, but made no final decision.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg announced his tentative view at the start of a hearing in San Francisco on a request by six citizens for a preliminary injunction blocking the system.

Seeborg said he will issue a written decision sometime after plaintiffs file a final brief next week.

Seeborg noted that he expects whichever side loses the case to appeal, and said, “I want to get this out so that you can do that.”

The instant runoff system, also known as ranked-choice voting, was approved by city voters in 2002 and put into effect in 2004.

The six citizens, led by former supervisorial candidate Ron Dudum, sued the city in February. They claim the system is unconstitutional because some voters are denied the ability to have their vote counted in later rounds of ballot counting.

The instant runoff applies to elections for the offices of mayor, Board of Supervisors, district attorney, city attorney, sheriff, public defender, treasurer and assessor-recorder.

It is intended to avoid the cost and the risk of low voter turnout associated with holding a separate runoff election at a later date in cases where no candidate in a particular race wins a majority.

Under the system, voters can rank three choices in each race. If no candidate in a race wins a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and his or her votes are transferred to the second choices of each resident who voted for that candidate. The process continues until one candidate achieves a majority.

However, some races, such as supervisorial contests, sometimes have a dozen or more candidates.

The plaintiffs claim the system violates their constitutional right to vote because voters whose candidates are eliminated in early rounds have no voice in the final rounds of ballot counting.

Their attorney, Jim Parrinello, argued to Seeborg, “The right to vote is not just the right to participate in the first couple of (rounds) and later be excluded in the later rounds of balloting.”

The city contends the system is constitutional under U.S. Supreme Court doctrines because it doesn’t prohibit people from voting and does not discriminate. The city also maintains that it would not be feasible to provide voting machines that can process more than three choices.

Deputy City Attorney Andrew Shen told Seeborg, “This is what was available. We spent a lot of money and a lot of time getting the current system up and running.”

The requested injunction, if granted, would bar the city from using ranked-choice voting unless voters can rank all candidates in a given race.

Dudum was one of six candidates in a 2006 election for the post of supervisor representing the Sunset District. He came in second to now-disgraced former Supervisor Ed Jew, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to extorting money from small businesses and lying about his place of residence.

The lawsuit asserts that Dudum might have won if Sunset District voters had been permitted to rank every candidate on the ballot.

Outside of court, Dudum said, “I don’t think it’s a fair system.”

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  • Dave Kadlecek

    The lawsuit says that Ron Dudum might have won the 2006 election if only voters had been allowed to rank all the candidates, but any reasonable political analysis indicates he would have lost in 2006, even if all voters had been able to rank all candidates.

    In 2006, Dudum lost by 801 votes in the final round of counting, but only 827 ballots were exhausted due to the three ranking limit (that is, they ranked three candidates who were defeated before the final round). While it is a theoretical possibility that Dudum could have won if almost all of those ballots were from voters who would have ranked him fourth if allowed to do so (rather than ranking Jew fourth, or choosing to stop at three rankings because they didn’t like either Dudum or Jew), that is extremely unlikely.

    An analysis of the ranked ballots cast in 2006 shows that if Ed Jew had been eliminated before the election, Jaynry Mak would have defeated Dudum, and if both Jew and Mak had been eliminated, Doug Chan would have defeated Dudum. In 2002, Dudum lost to Fiona Ma in a two-round runoff election, and in 2008 he lost to Carmen Chu in the first round of an RCV election.

    While Dudum clearly has some supporters in the Sunset, he also clearly doesn’t have majority support in Supervisorial District 4.

    Since winning the lawsuit wouldn’t allow Dudum to win in District 4, why was it filed? Is Dudum really leading a group of six citizens, or is he just the best-known of six citizens fronting for someone who prefers to remain behind the scenes? If we knew who was paying for the lawsuit, that might point to a better answer to these questions.