Three-Candidate Limit in SF Voting System Unconstitutional, Suit Says | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Three-Candidate Limit in SF Voting System Unconstitutional, Suit Says

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - San Francisco voters and a defeated candidate for the Board of Supervisors challenged the city's three-candidate "instant runoff" voting system in Federal Court. They claim the system, adopted in 2002, deprives voters of the chance to vote in later rounds by limiting their choices to three, regardless of how many candidates are running.

Under the system, voting takes place on a single day, and if no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes after the initial tally, the instant runoff occurs.

Of the top three candidates, the candidate who receives the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are transferred to the voters' second choices.

"The instant runoff process continues, round after round, until one candidate gets a majority of the 'continuing' votes cast," the complaint states.

But if a voter did not choose anyone in the top three, the ballot is thrown out.

"If you or I go to the polls and vote and our votes aren't counted, it seems to me that our constitutional rights are being violated," said James Parrinello, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

Plaintiff Ron Dudum, who lost a close race for city supervisor in 2006, says the system is confusing to voters no matter how many times it's explained.

"Advocates in favor of the system simply insist that voter education is all that counts. But what they're really saying is the voters just aren't smart enough. In the real world, no amount of education will make a voter feel confident," he said.

Dudum attributes his loss to the ranked-choice voting system, claiming he received more votes than the candidate who was declared the winner. But he says his lawsuit has "nothing to do with sour grapes."

"This isn't about me," said Dudum, who added that he has no plans to run for municipal office again.

He said that as a voter, he is concerned about whether his vote will count in the next election.

"I'm going to vote for mayor next year and I have no idea whether I'm going to pick the right three," he said

For Rob Richie, Executive Director of think tank FairVote, Dudum's criticism of ranked choice voting is "a natural reaction when one loses a close race," adding Dudum was not as strong a candidate as he claimed and perhaps "didn't understand his own election." He said ranked choice actually allows voters more opportunities to have a deciding vote than other systems. "They are still part of the election and they have three chances to have a deciding vote," he said, indicating that although he and other advocates prefer more rankings than just three, voting machines are not programmed that way and "we have to deal with the realities of the machinery."

Parrinello and Dudum said the city instituted the system to reduce the expenses of holding elections.

"If you want to save money, why don't we just do away with elections and have a dictatorship? It's ridiculous," Dudum said. "It's silly to say that money should trump democracy."

Richie said through their lawsuit, Dudum and the other plaintiffs are just "trying to create feelings of unease and confusion," in an attempt to do away with ranked choice voting altogether. "If they for some reason win this litigation it would lead to a long, messy hand count in November," Richie said.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and an injunction before the November election. They are represented by James Parrinello and Christopher Skinner with Nielsen Merksamer of San Rafael.

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