Ranked-Choice Voting Is Constitutional

by Mark Wilson

The legislative body of the City and County of San Francisco is known as the Board of Supervisors, and its members are called Supervisors. Ron Dudum, along with other failed candidates for Supervisor, filed suit in federal court alleging that San Francisco’s instant runoff voting (IRV) system was unconstitutional. The district court granted summary judgment for the City, so Dudum appealed. At oral arguments, the Ninth Circuit Court seemed — what’s a synonym for really skeptical — about Dudum’s arguments.

IRV is unconstitutional for three reasons, he said: (1) after voters’ choices are “exhausted,” but elimination rounds continue, the voters’ non-votes are not being counted; (2) successive rounds of elimination in IRV are akin to successive elections, and not counting votes in successive elections is disenfranchising; and (3) IRV dilutes votes (under the premise that a voter who votes for a winning candidate through all three rounds has voted once, but a voter who votes for three losing candidates through all three rounds has voted three times).

Judge Marsha Berzon opened the three-judge panel’s opinion in Dudum v. Arntz with a quotation from Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll), who, in addition to writing Alice in Wonderland, taught mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford. Dodgson attempted to invent more equitable systems of voting but never could quite come up with them. One of the biggest problems with the simplest type of voting, called “simple plurality voting,” is that a candidate who was disliked by the majority could theoretically win the election because he garnered more votes than the next person.

The opinion deftly dismantles Dudum’s characterizations, most of which are based on mischaracterizations of the way the voting system works. For one thing, IRV does not involve individual elections; Berzon classifies IRV as using an algorithm: “the sequence of calculations mandated by restricted IRV is used to arrive at a single output — one winning candidate. The series of calculations required by the algorithm to produce the winning candidate are simply steps of a single tabulation, not separate rounds of voting.”

While Dudum is publicly disappointed at his loss, probably because he has sour grapes over losing his election, he shouldn’t be; the case was a long shot from the beginning. Government entities are free to design elections to their liking, within certain parameters (you know, pesky things like the Fourteenth Amendment). In this case, “the City’s ‘important regulatory interests’ are more than substantial enough to justify the minimal at best burdens imposed by the City’s chosen system.”