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Landmark Federal Case Upholds Ranked Choice Voting

Election method also known as Instant Runoff Voting
Published:   April 19, 2010

In a landmark opinion issued late on Friday, Federal District Court Judge Richard Seeborg upheld the constitutionality of San Francisco's Ranked Choice Voting method, the first time a federal court has weighed in on the subject of Instant Runoff Voting. Judge Seeborg decisively rejected a legal challenge which claimed the city's voting method was defective because it limited voters to ranking three candidates in any one race.

"Judge Seeborg's opinion confirms what we have been saying all along. Instant Runoff Voting is clearly constitutional and is also superior in many ways to plurality elections," said Blair Bobier, a lawyer who is Deputy Director of the New America Foundation's Political Reform Program. 

Judge Seeborg's opinion quoted approvingly from a Massachusetts Supreme Court decision which said that Ranked Choice Voting "seeks more accurately to reflect voter sentiment and to provide for the representation of minority groups...."

"San Francisco has been well-served by Ranked Choice Voting," said Steven Hill, Director of the Political Reform Program. "The city has saved millions of dollars by eliminating the high-cost and low-turnout runoff elections which used to take place in December and many more voters now have a say in who their elected officials are. This litigation was nothing more than a sour grapes lawsuit brought by a sore loser candidate," Hill added.
"This is a landmark decision," said Gautam Dutta, Political Reform Program Deputy Director and author of the Amicus Brief submitted by New America for this lawsuit. "Although the Supreme Courts of Minnesota and Massachusetts have upheld the constitutionality of Instant Runoff Voting, this is the first time a federal court has directly addressed the issue. The opinion is a ringing endorsement of IRV," said Dutta.

Ranked Choice Voting has been used for San Francisco municipal elections since 2004. This year, the cities of Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro will begin using Ranked Choice Voting for their local elections.

Two bills, SB 1346 and AB 2732, which would allow the use of Ranked Choice Voting for special elections are currently pending in the California Legislature.

Further analysis of the court's decision can be found on the Political Reform Blog. The entire decision can be found here.

For media inquiries, please contact Elizabeth Wu at (510) 295-9859 or wu@newamerica.net.