Voices & Choices

Ranked choice voting reaffirmed in latest court challenge

 Ranked choice voting reaffirmed in latest court challenge

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker became the latest in a string of judges to consider and uphold the constitutionality of ranked choice voting, with a new judgement Thursday that affirmed its use in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race.

When it became apparent that incumbent U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin would lose to challenger Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, he filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that Maine’s new use of ranked choice voting meant that he should be declared the winner instead. The lawsuit made a variety of claims, including one that has come up in court before: that RCV somehow violates the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.”

Because RCV permits voters to rank multiple candidates, some worry it does not satisfy the “one person, one vote” requirement. However, every court to have considered the question concludes there is no discrepancy because RCV treats all voters equally - every voter has the right to rank candidates, and every voter has one vote for their highest-ranked remaining candidate in every round of counting.

As Judge Walker succinctly put it in his opinion, “the point is that ‘one person, one vote’ does not stand in opposition to ranked balloting, so long as all electors are treated equally at the ballot.”

Prior courts have all agreed with Judge Walker’s conclusion, including a unanimous three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in 2011, the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2009, the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1996, and a Michigan county circuit court in 1975.

Poliquin and the other plaintiffs made other, more novel arguments as well. Each claim was easily rebuffed by Judge Walker.

To the plaintiffs’ claim that Article I of the Constitution prohibits RCV, Walker wrote, “in the final analysis, RCV is not invalidated by Article I because there is no textual support for such a result and because it is not inherently inconsistent with our Nation’s republican values. In fact, the opposite is true.”

To the unsupported claims made by James Gimpel, expert witness for the plaintiffs, that RCV is confusing to voters: “There was no evidence produced to support that argument other than the conclusory testimony of Dr. Gimpel, which I have summarized and discount entirely. … In fact, I find the form of the ballot and the associated instructions more than adequate to apprise the voter of how to express preferences among the candidates.”

And to the claim that RCV somehow violates the First Amendment: “[T]here is no dispute that the RCV Act-itself the product of a citizens’ initiative involving a great deal of first amendment expression-was motivated by a desire to enable third-party and non-party candidates to participate in the political process, and to enable their supporters to express support, without producing the spoiler effect. In this way, the RCV Act actually encourages First Amendment expression, without discriminating against any voter based on viewpoint, faction or other invalid criteria.”

While litigation has long been employed as a tool by those who feel threatened by the power RCV gives to voters, it also provides ample opportunity to prove RCV can stand up to constitutional challenges - as it has before every judge to consider it.

As Judge Walker wrote, “the American experiment in republican-representative government neither began nor ended with ratification of the Constitution. The values that informed Article I not only inspired the Revolution, but also continued a purposeful evolution in our national experiment in representative government.”

The full opinion is attached here or may be downloaded at this link.


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