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Legal NewsCAA Legal Fund Supports Challenge to Instant Runoff Voting in San Francisco


In February 2010, a lawsuit was filed in federal court to invalidate San Francisco’s Instant Runoff Voting System (also known as ‘Ranked Choice Voting." CAA’s Legal Fund is providing financial assistance for attorneys fees and costs in this matter.

The lawsuit alleges that the system , adopted by the voters as Proposition A in March 2002, violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution because it denies a voters right to vote once his or her three ranked candidates are eliminated from contention. As a result, the system regularly disenfranchises thousands of voters in municipal elections.

The system allows a voter to rank only three candidates even though there are often a dozen or more candidates for an office. This means that once those three choices are eliminated the voter has no say in who the final winner is, which may be determined after a dozen or more rounds of automatic "voting." This type of system has been adopted in a number of cities and the result is often that more moderate or conservative candidates are eliminated in early rounds, and by the final rounds, the voters who favored such candidates have also been eliminated from participation.

CAA Legal Committee Chairman Dave Wasserman of San Francisco has stated that:

"So the issue across the state, and indeed the nation, is how ranked choice voting (RCV) can be utilized to essentially crowd the field so as to ensure that the most qualified, and even most popular, candidate is defeated. The dilution of votes works against the strongest candidate. Just ask Don Perata who lost the Oakland Mayoral election. In big elections, like a mayoral one, the progressive left will field a slew of people who will garner second and third choice votes. The statistical odds favor their ultimate victory as compared to the main vote getter (candidate who has the most first choice votes) based upon how RCV tabulates voting points. In San Francisco, we have two supervisors who won with a minority of first choice votes but who garnered more second and third choice picks. This means, with RCV, that we oftentimes cannot get behind a strong candidate, given the likelihood that a lesser candidate will take the election. As such, our political sway is greatly diminished under the RCV scheme. Just ask the folks in Oakland."

The case is currently before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal and a decision is expected any day.

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