Credit: Amir Aziz

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors is considering ordering the county Registrar of Voters to conduct a recount for all ranked-choice races in the Nov. 8 election, including the Oakland mayor’s race and an OUSD school board race where an error apparently led to the wrong candidate being certified as the winner.

Supervisor Keith Carson called for the potential recount, which could cost hundreds of thousands, in a memo to his colleagues, saying election outcomes have been “called into question” due to mistakes made by registrar Tim Dupuis and his staff.

Carson wants an independent third party to oversee a recount of the elections, possibly a registrar from another county. Under his proposal, Alameda County’s registrar would pay for the recount, and representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties and good government groups would observe. (Under state law, any member of the public can observe ballot counts for elections.)

At today’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where Carson’s recount proposal was considered, Dupuis gave a presentation to explain the errors his staff made.

Alameda County Registrar of Voters Time Dupuis at today’s supervisors’ meeting.

According to Dupuis, the problem was that the county’s ranked-choice voting tally system, a machine that uses an algorithm to conduct the ranked-choice runoff, was not configured properly. Ballots where a voter mistakenly didn’t select a first choice but did pick candidates for their second, third, fourth, and other choices were “suspended,” meaning they were set aside and not counted in the first round. 

According to Oakland’s ranked-choice voting law, the algorithm should have been set to take the second-choice vote for these ballots and treat them as first choices, so they would be counted in the first round.

By suspending some of these blank first-choice ballots, the results in the first round weren’t entirely accurate, meaning that the wrong candidates could have ended up in last place.

A slide from Registrar Dupuis’ presentation explaining his office’s error in tabulating ranked-choice ballots.

According to the registrar, when they re-ran the ballots through the tally system with the proper configuration, only one of the races in Oakland had a different outcome.

In the OUSD District 4 race, Nick Resnick was certified as the winner on Dec. 20. But when the registrar used the correct algorithm, Mike Hutchinson was no longer eliminated in the first round due to his suspended ballots, and in the second round, he was able to pick up enough of the third-place candidate’s second-choice votes to defeat Resnick.

At today’s supervisors’ meeting, Dupuis said a recount of all the ranked-choice races for Oakland and possibly the other cities that used the system, Berkeley and San Leandro, could take weeks or months to complete. Carson said he was motivated to bring the proposal forward because the integrity of elections matter.

Some members of the public who called in to speak during public comment made the point that a recount of ballots won’t do anything to address the registrar’s error. The ballots were counted and entered into a database correctly. The error happened when the registrar applied the wrong algorithm to the counted ballot data.

“No one has presented any facts that ranked-choice voting here is at fault at all,” said Berkeley resident Andy Kelly, a supporter of ranked-choice voting. “They’ve raised issues with how [ranked-choice voting] has been administered.”

Others have objected to the use of ranked-choice voting, saying Oakland should reconsider its use in local elections. Most notably, mayoral candidate Loren Taylor called ranked-choice voting a form of “voter suppression” during his concession speech in November.

Since the error was discovered by two outside groups—CalRCV and FairVote, which both advocate for ranked-choice voting—and brought to the registrar’s attention, candidates in the District 4 race have signaled that they plan to take legal action. Hutchinson said he plans to file a lawsuit to overturn the certified results, which still have Resnick as the winner. Resnick has retained attorneys and demanded documents from the registrar.

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, who was sworn in earlier this week, said she would welcome a recount of the mayor’s race. The margin in that race was 600 votes, an unlikely but not impossible margin to overcome in a recount. In December, the Oakland NAACP requested a recount for the mayor’s race, arguing that the county should pay for it because Thao’s margin of victory was so small. The group also argued that some voters might have been confused by ranked-choice voting.

The supervisors didn’t vote during today’s meeting on Carson’s proposal to conduct a recount, but plan to bring the item back to next Tuesday’s meeting.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.