A 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.”