Nelson v. Warner, No. 20-1860 (4th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Individuals and organizations affiliated with the West Virginia Democratic Party challenged West Virginia Code 3-6-2(c)(3), under which election ballots for partisan state and federal elections are organized for each contest by listing first the candidates affiliated with the political party whose candidate for President received the most votes in West Virginia in the most recent presidential election. The plaintiffs contend that because candidates appearing first on the ballot “almost always” receive an increased vote share based solely on this priority status, this system favors candidates based on their political affiliation, violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The district court rejected jurisdictional challenges, including that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the complaint presented a nonjusticiable political question, and agreed with the plaintiffs on the merits. The Fourth Circuit vacated after holding that the district court properly asserted subject matter jurisdiction and a court may consider the lawfulness of the statute despite its partisan context. A ballot-order statute, which provides a neutral rule for listing candidates’ names on the ballot, does not violate the Constitution even though the statute may impair a candidate’s ability to attract “the windfall vote.” Such a statute places at most a modest burden on free speech and equal protection rights. Any modest burden imposed by the statute on the plaintiffs’ rights is justified by the state’s important interests in promoting voting efficiency and in reducing voter confusion and error.