Wednesday, September 9, 2020
By Sandra Hong, Staff Writer
California’s winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes to presidential candidates does not violate the “one person, one vote” standard protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal held yesterday.
The opinion by Circuit Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen affirms the dismissal of a complaint, with prejudice, by District Court Judge Consuelo B. Marshall of the Central District of California. Marshall rejected a challenge to the state’s electoral voting system on the basis of the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court’s summary affirmance in Williams v. Virginia State Board of Elections of a decision by the District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia.
Nguyen’s opinion echoes those issued earlier this year by three other circuits, all of which upheld winner-take-all (“WTA”) systems of awarding electoral college votes in presidential elections against challenges in South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Texas. The challenges were orchestrated by legal reform nonprofit corporation, Equal Citizens.
“We join our three sister circuits to have considered the issue in holding that, under Williams, a State’s use of WTA to select its presidential electors is consistent with the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection,” Nguyen said in the opinion, joined by Circuit Judge Consuelo M. Callahan and District Court Judge Dana L. Christensen of the District of Montana, sitting by designation.
“We also conclude that Appellants have failed to plausibly allege that California’s use of WTA to select presidential electors violates the First Amendment,” Nguyen added.
Decision in Williams
Decisions by the First, Fourth, and Fifth circuits also cited Williams, where the U.S. Supreme Court embraced the lower court’s reasoning in an opinion that said, simply: “The judgment is affirmed.”
The District Court held that a state’s selection of electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis does not violate the “one person, one vote” principle of the Fourteenth Amendment because it “does not in any way denigrate the power of one citizen’s ballot and heighten the influence of another’s vote.”
Plaintiffs in the California lawsuit were comedian Paul Rodriguez, former Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of San Diego, and the civil rights group League of United Latin American Citizens (“LULAC”) and its California chapter.
Their complaint alleges that California’s winner-take-all system “unconstitutionally magnifies” votes for typically Democratic candidates while diluting those for other candidates, usually Republican.
Gray v. Sanders
The plaintiffs argued that the controlling opinion is not Williams but the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Gray v. Sanders.
In Gray, the high court struck down Georgia’s county-unit system used by the Democratic Party in primaries. Each county was assigned a number of units and the candidate with the highest number of votes in a county would receive all of its units.
The Supreme Court, in invalidating the system, observed that “if a candidate won 6,000 of 10,000 votes in a particular county, he would get the entire unit vote, the 4,000 other votes for a different candidate being worth nothing and being counted only for the purpose of being discarded.”
“WTA in California is…materially identical to the system in Williams—and Williams was decided after Gray.”
“Further, the analogy to Gray falls short. Gray’s central concern was the presence of geographic discrimination in the Georgia Democratic Party’s] primary election system….
“No comparable concern about geographic discrimination exists here. Appellants claim their votes are “discarded because they live in California, and it is the California Democratic Party that benefits….But the Court’s concern in Gray was that votes in Georgia were treated differently based on the voters’ location within the state; in California, all votes are treated equally regardless of where they are cast.”
The complaint also alleges that a winner-take-all system burdens First Amendment rights by ignoring votes for certain candidates, as a result, discouraging voters from participating, removing “their ‘basic incentive’ for participating in the presidential election at all.”
“Because Appellants can participate fully in California’s presidential election, including voting for their preferred candidates, their right to case an effective vote is not burdened,” Nguyen concluded.
She said that any burden imposed by a winner-take-all system would be, at most, “minimal” and outweighed by an important interest of the state to maximize the impact of its electoral votes within the Electoral College.
“WTA increases the voting power of the State within the electoral college, as all of its votes are cast in support of one candidate,” Nguyen wrote. “And it also protects California against the use of WTA by the forty-seven other States that have adopted it.”
The case is Rodriguez v. Newsom, 18-56281.
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