Ranked-choice allows voters to rank their favorite candidates. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to seek a recount of several races in the Nov. 8 election that used ranked-choice voting to select the winners, including the Oakland mayor’s race and the hotly contested Oakland Unified School District, District 4 seat. 

“I think this is more important for the future than the present, to give every effort to build confidence in Alameda County elections. It is something we have to stay focused on,” said Supervisor Keith Carson, who drafted the recount proposal.

On Dec. 28, the county registrar’s office announced it had made a major error that resulted in inaccurate tallies of ballots in Oakland’s ranked-choice elections. The error, according to the registrar, resulted in the wrong candidate, Nick Resnick, being certified as the winner of the OUSD District 4 race, while the winner should have been Mike Hutchinson.

A week later on Jan. 3, the Oakland chapter of the NAACP called for a recount of the Oakland mayor’s race due to its concerns with the narrow margin of victory by which Sheng Thao defeated the second-place candidate Loren Taylor—677 votes, or less than half of a percent of the total votes cast.

The Oakland NAACP had first called for a recount of the mayor’s race in December, but the registrar declined after the NAACP and others failed to provide the required $21,000 per day fee to pay for the recount.

Supervisor Keith Carson submitted his proposal for a recount by an independent third party at a special meeting of the county supervisors last week. The legislation passed by the board today requests that the registrar retain an “experienced individual,” possibly the registrar of another county, to oversee the new ballot count. The public will be allowed to observe, and groups like the Democratic Party, Republican Party, and League of Women Voters will be invited and allowed to ask questions during the process. The recount will be paid by the county out of the registrar’s budget.

The supervisors also decided to establish an Alameda County Elections Oversight Committee. Although the proposal is thin on details about how the committee might work, it would “hold public meetings for any interested residents” and “serve as the central point of contact along with the Registrar of Voters to ensure that Alameda County holds the most transparent elections possible,” according to Carson’s plan.

The committee could work as an advisory body, similar to one in Santa Clara County which makes recommendations to that county’s board of supervisors and registrar about how to run elections. Or, it could be set up as a more powerful commission, similar to San Francisco’s Election Commission, which has independent policy-making authority and oversight of all local, state, and federal elections conducted in San Francisco.

The error made by Alameda County Registrar Tim Dupuis and his staff has thrown the outcome of Oakland’s District 4 school board race into question. Dupuis’ office certified Nick Resnick as the winner of that race, but on Dec. 23 he was contacted by members of the California Ranked Choice Voting Coalition, a group that does advocacy and education work around ranked choice. Sean Dugar, the group’s executive director, informed Dupuis that they had independently run the county’s election data through their own ranked-choice tally software and gotten different results than what Dupuis had certified on Dec. 8 as the final outcome. The difference was due to the registrar having used the wrong algorithm, one that according to Dupuis is used to administer elections in Minnesota.

The error, according to Dupuis, didn’t change the outcome in the Oakland mayor’s race. But it did change the results in one race—OUSD’s District 4 contest.

Dupuis then called the candidates and informed them of the problem. Mike Hutchinson, who came in third place in the certified results—but who should have won had the proper algorithm been used—has filed a lawsuit with the Alameda County Superior Court asking a judge to throw out the certified results and declare him the winner in District 4.

Voters and representatives of various political and good government groups called into the supervisors’ meeting to give input. Most said they support the recount that the supervisors approved. Some, however, said that the supervisors may not have any legal authority at this point to conduct a recount of any of the local elections.

Beverly Palmer, an attorney representing Mike Hutchinson, said she’s concerned that the supervisors’ actions could impact his court petition to take the OUSD D4 seat. “I urge the county to make clear that no action it’s taking today is intended to interfere with the election contest that’s been filed,” she said, referring to Hutchinson’s petition, which an Alameda County judge is expected to rule on sometime soon.

Palmer and several other members of the public also said state elections law may not allow the registrar to reopen the ballot counting process because the deadline for a recount has passed. The supervisors asked their attorney, County Counsel Donna Ziegler, whether someone could challenge their decision to order a recount. “Any action can be challenged,” she replied.

Viola Gonzales of the League of Women Voters Oakland told the supervisors her group mostly supports the plan they approved to conduct a recount. But the league doesn’t think an independent elections committee is a good idea. “We advise [the county supervisors] keep direct oversight of the registrar of voters,” Gonzales said.

So far, the supervisors have refrained from criticizing Dupuis for his team’s error. Several of the supervisors even took the opportunity to thank Dupuis and defend his work, stating that running elections is complicated work.

Members of the public were not so generous.

One person who called into the meeting named Mary called for Dupuis to be fired. “Across the board, he inspires no confidence in the ability to do his job,” she said.

Pedro Hernandez, legal and policy director of the voting rights group Common Cause, criticized Dupuis and the board of supervisors for a string of serious election errors going back two years. In 2020, his group expressed concerns about how over 100 voters at an East Oakland polling site were disenfranchised when registrar’s staff and volunteer election workers mistakenly told them they could take their ballots home, rather than count them on site. 

“This board said it would take corrective action but did nothing,” said Hernandez about the 2020 error. 

California Common Cause, like the League of Women Voters Oakland, opposes setting up an election committee, preferring instead for the board of supervisors to use its authority to ensure accurate and transparent elections. “Unfortunately it’s our experience that the Alameda County Registrar of Voters is the least transparent, least responsive, and least cooperative in the state,” said Hernandez. “It’s up to this board, not a commission, to hold the registrar of voters accountable.”

In addition to recounting the Oakland mayor’s race and OUSD D4 race, two close races in San Leandro that also used ranked-choice voting will be re-tallied. The supervisors didn’t state a timeline during their meeting about when the recounts of the mayor’s race and other elections might begin.

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.