11 June 2009

MN Supreme Court upholds Instant Runoff Voting in Minneapolis

I haven't posted for a little while, but today something crossed the plane of my attention that seemed interesting enough to talk about. Today, Minnesota's Supreme Court turned away a "facial" challenge to Minneapolis' voter-approved Instant Runoff Voting system. You can find their decision in full here.

The Minneapolis IRV system has never actually been implemented, yet, so this challenge was not to the application of the ordinance, but to the concept of it. Hence, the term "facial" challenge, which is shorthand for the contention that, on its face, the ordinance is unconstitutional. Because all enacted law is considered constitutional unless proven otherwise, in a facial challenge, the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs, and the bar is set high. The plaintiffs have to demonstrate that there is no possible way that an ordinance or statute could be implemented constitutionally.

As such, the court rejected a host of theoretical arguments, both against and for the the ordinance, in favor of answering whether it was possible for the ordinance to result in an election that met constitutional hurdles for protecting the individual right to an equal vote. The court noted that the right to vote is not absolute and unburdened. Courts have repeatedly upheld the rights of states and localities to define election procedures, which by definition will almost always impose some sort of burden upon the voter's right to cast their ballot. In Richfield, for example, I have to cast my ballot at my assigned polling place, not at any old polling place within the city. This is considered a reasonable burden.

So, in order for the IRV ordinance to be unconstitutional on its face, the plaintiffs had to prove that, under all possible circumstances, IRV imposed a heavier-than-necessary burden upon the right to vote, or deprived that right entirely from certain classes of voters.

The appellants (originally plaintiffs), the Minnesota Voters Alliance, attempted to make this case by contending that IRV violates one-person-one-vote and equal protection. Part of their argument was a claim that, in subsequent rounds of the instant-runoff procedure, individuals who voted for eliminated candidates have a second chance to vote, while individuals who voted for surviving candidates do not. The city countered, and the court agreed, that in fact, just as in an ordinary runoff, each round starts the counting anew, as if a new election had been held, but assumes that individuals' preference choices remain the same. Thus, in the second round, people who voted for a candidate as their first choice still have their vote counted, just as it was in the first round. The difference is that now, people who voted for that same candidate as their second choice are counted for that candidate instead of the one that was eliminated.

Functionally, the court, ruled, this is exactly the same as Minneapolis' previous system. Minneapolis had a non-partisan primary, which eliminated all but two candidates for each single-seat election (e.g. Mayor) and all but 2n candidates for n-seat elections (e.g. the Board of Estimate, which was elected en bloc rather than on a seat-by-seat basis).

(It's worth noting, by the way, that the Minnesota Voters Alliance opposes this scheme, as well, preferring partisan primaries in "first class" cities, but have never successfully challenged it.)

In the IRV system, all first-preference votes are counted first. if no candidate receives a threshold number of votes (e.g. a majority of votes cast for a single-seat election), then the candidate receiving the least number of votes is dropped. All first-preference votes for surviving candidates are then counted again, and then second-preference votes for the survivors are added. This is repeated until one candidate received the threshold number of votes.

So, the court ruled, while there are more rounds involved, IRV is functionally equivalent to the two-stage, primary and general election system previously used and long-since upheld, if one assumes that everyone who voted for candidates who survived the primary will vote for those same candidates in the general election. While noting that some voters choose to cast their ballots "strategically", voting in the primary for weaker candidates who will lose when put up against their actually preferred candidate, they ruled that there was no constitutional requirement that this capability be integral to the voting system chosen; and furthermore, since it's a hypothetical situation, it's immaterial to a facial case.

The court went on to refute just about every other complaint the appellants brought in a like manner, although they did note some specific circumstances under which the results could be challenged in the future. However, since no actual vote has yet been taken, and therefore those circumstances hadn't happened yet, they did not nullify the constitutionality of the ordinance on its face. They furthermore did not explicitly say that a challenge under those circumstances would succeed.

This means there will almost certainly be follow-up litigation once an election is held; but in the meantime, Minneapolis is poised for a grand experiment.


sal_e_peters said...

OK, I had a slightly different application in mind for the IRV, so this does clear things up in my mind. I like the way it worked in my head much better; that my vote would automatically move up the ladder if my candidate didn't get one of the top two spots.

Uncle Mikey said...

@sal_e_peters It's ultimately a matter of semantics, but for the purposes of constitutionality, it's 100% vital that it work the way the court described. Everyone must have an equal opportunity to vote (or rather, to be counted) in every single round. That means that the existing votes for surviving candidates must be seen as if they had been re-counted, even if, practically speaking, all that's really happening is that the second-choice votes are being added.

Most importantly, IRV is not a cumulative system, in which no candidate is eliminated, per se, but second- and third-choice votes get added after the first round. That scheme, implemented at one time by Duluth, is unconstitutional and was used as a comparison case in this ruling.