A unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system—referring to the author of beloved children’s classics.

In writing the 35-page opinion (PDF), Judge Marsha Berzon alluded to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll,” author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”

Dodgson was also a mathematician who developed alternatives to simple majority voting. Judge Berzon notes that Dodgson preferred his own election systems to the one commonly used at the time, even as he recognized his creations were imperfect, too:

“Over a century later, Dodgson’s wish remains unfulfilled. No perfect election system has been devised. Nonetheless,some governmental entities continue to experiment with innovative methods for electing candidates. At issue here is one such system, used by San Francisco for the election of certain city officials.”

Plaintiffs, including a losing supervisorial candidate in District 4, complained that San Francisco’s system—which allows voters to choose three candidates—disenfranches voters whose top three choices fail to make the final two.

The court agreed with a federal District Court ruling that while San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system may not be perfect, it is far from unconstitutional.

The decision confirms what most expected—that San Francisco’s November mayoral election will be a real free-for-all with more than a dozen candidates. Under ranked-choice voting it seems nothing is certain, and winning is about getting enough voters to make you their second or third choice. Just ask Don Perata, erstwhile Sacramento power broker—and losing mayoral candidate in last year’s ranked-choice election in Oakland.

9th Circuit Opinion: Dudum v. Arntz

Appeals Court: San Francisco’s Ranked-Choice Voting OK 20 May,2011Scott Shafer

  • David Cary

    Is having nine or so strong candidates for Mayor a bad thing or an indication of a competitive election and a healthy democracy?

    A free-for-all? Will this be an election with no rules? Please let us know when the brawling begins. I thought one of the lessons from Oakland was that RCV encouraged candidates to reach out to more voters than their core base, even build coalitions with other candidates.

    Is not knowing the winner five months before election day a sign of electoral failure? If you know how this election would finish if it were a plurality election or a November/December top-two runoff, please share your insights.

    Can a candidate win under RCV with only second and third choices? Or does winning depend on getting first-choice votes as well? With the old top-two runoff system, runoffs were won by getting second and third choices from voters also, because their first-choice candidates didn’t make it into the final round.

    What quality of journalism does KQED aspire to?


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED’s Politics and Government Desk. When he’s not asking questions you’ll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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