OAKLAND — The ongoing dispute over Oakland’s November school board election has opened a floodgate of questions about how Alameda County conducted its ranked choice voting system, and officials so far have no quick or easy answers.
A key question that officials have not yet answered: Should voters in Oakland’s mayoral race have been allowed to choose between all 10 candidates who ran for the office and not merely five?
According to the city charter, they should have. The charter reads: “The ranked choice voting ballot shall allow voters to rank as many choices as there are candidates.”
The charter does specify elsewhere that ballots could be limited to no fewer than three choices if the available voting equipment “cannot feasibly accommodate” the total number of candidates running.
But the Dominion Voting Systems election software used by Alameda County did, in fact, allow for ballots to include 10 choices, according to Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis.
Prior to the November election, Dupuis met with the previous Oakland city clerk, and they opted to raise the number of choices on the election ballot from three to five — a policy shift for which there was no public announcement.
Requests for comment on the conflicts between the city charter and the November ballot were directed to City Attorney Barbara Parker, who did not respond by the paper’s deadline.
It’s unclear how — or if — the disparity between the city charter and the way the election was conducted impacts the validity of the mayoral election, which saw Councilmember Sheng Thao win the city’s highest office largely through ranked choice vote transfers.
It’s also not clear if the results in Thao’s race would have been different if voters had chosen from among the 10 candidates, and it does not appear likely that her close win will be subject to a recount, despite calls from county supervisors for one.
Still, the vague answers from election officials on the questions surrounding ranked choice voting have exasperated experts and longtime observers as well as the attorneys embroiled in the Oakland Unified school board mess.
The District 4 school board seat remains filled by the certified winner, Nick Resnick, despite the county’s subsequent determination that the race should have been won by Mike Hutchinson, who finished third through improper tallying.
Resnick’s attorney, Jim Sutton, said neither he nor Hutchinson’s representation have been able to schedule a meeting with Dupuis since the registrar first called to notify the candidates in late December that ranked choice ballots in their race were processed incorrectly, flipping the outcome.
Additional questions involving that race need to be cleared up. For instance, the race included three candidates, but voters were given five columns on their ballots — excess space that may have contributed to the snafu.
About 235 ballots did not include a first-choice candidate, but subsequent columns were filled. The county mistakenly sidelined those ballots until the next round of ranked choice voting, when nearly half of them should immediately have gone to Hutchinson.
“Why have five columns in the school board race if there were only three candidates?” Sutton asked in an interview. “It could lead to confusion.”
The registrar’s office has not released a detailed explanation of how it incorrectly programmed the Dominion software. What is known for certain, though, is that the office did not follow the Oakland city charter, which makes clear those “suspended ballots” should have been counted right away.
The charter, which established Oakland in 1852, was amended 15 years ago to add the new voting system.
In past interviews, Dupuis has said the city charter needs to be updated, noting that he intends to “sit down with the city clerk and review this language that was written 15 years ago, a lot of it copied over from San Francisco’s charter.”
Incidentally, voters in San Francisco — which also uses Dominion software — submitted ballots where there were exactly as many columns as the candidates running.
Why wasn’t the same process followed in Oakland? The question points to the need for California-wide guidelines for how ranked choice elections should be conducted but starts with greater transparency from county officials, said Rob Richie, CEO of the advocacy group FairVote.
“It would be great if the registrar was in a consultative mode with the public,” Richie said in an interview. “The root of it is engagement; there’s interest in developing a mechanism (in state policies) to ensure some kind of dialogue or consultation.”
Richie and other observers were surprised at how little communication they have received from the county, compared to other election officials across the state.
Helen Hutchison, the former president of the California League of Women Voters, said she was frustrated by the registrar’s sparse communication with her organization. “We asked them for a simple ballot so we could use it for voter education and didn’t get a response,” she said.
The fraught school board election, meanwhile, has spread confusion among members of the public about what actually went wrong. And it has given a black eye to ranked choice voting at a moment when jurisdictions all over the country are considering adopting the format.
“The good thing, though, is that most voters get what they need to do in ranking their preferences,” said Aaron Tiedemann, the mayor of Albany, who helped get the format adopted by the city. “This is an issue of human clerical error rather than one of ranked choice voting.”
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