If you followed local elections last year, you know that the office responsible for running fair and transparent elections in Alameda County came under a lot of fire for their handling of the November ballots and more. (And if you follow our reporting, you know that we sued that office in the public interest along these lines.)

Now, a new watchdog will help oversee federal, state, and local elections in Alameda County, making sure the registrar of voters, the county office that administers elections, is transparently and accurately handling everything from voter education to ballot counting.

The county Board of Supervisors, which oversees the registrar, voted Tuesday to establish a 13-member elections commission with a goal of appointing its members by August.

Supervisor Keith Carson wrote the legislation creating the commission following the November 2022 General Election, which was marred by several serious mistakes made by Registrar Tim Dupuis and his team including incorrectly tabulated ballots in ranked-choice contests in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro. As a result, the registrar certified the wrong candidate as the winner in the Oakland Unified School District’s District 4 race, leading to confusion and a lawsuit before the actual winner was able to take office. 

The registrar was also criticized by voter advocacy groups who said the office didn’t do adequate voter education and outreach. And the registrar’s missteps stoked distrust in the results of the Oakland mayor’s race, leading some groups and individuals to demand a recount. That recount never happened because the registrar’s errors in tabulating ranked-choice ballots did not result in the wrong candidate winning, and most election observers agree there are no outstanding issues with that race. 

The registrar’s lack of transparency extended to the media. The registrar’s staff ignored The Oaklandside’s requests for information about election results, recount requests, and mistakes in the ballot counting process, and we know that other local news outlets were frustrated by Dupuis’s office as well. Our newsroom filed a lawsuit against the registrar earlier this year, resulting in the county’s lawyers agreeing to provide us with the records we asked for.

The new commission is designed to address many of these problems, mainly by requiring the registrar to present the oversight board with its plan in advance of each election. The commission will give the registrar feedback on the plan—including voter education, outreach, language access, and technical issues, including how ballots are counted. The commission will also conduct post-election assessments and report to the Board of Supervisors.

Sean Dugar, a voting rights advocate who has been involved in community efforts to improve elections in Alameda County, said the commission is a very positive development.

“As we’re gearing up for a special election for the Oakland school board, the March 2024 primary, and the November general election next year, the registrar will have to allow for community input for any plans they present to the Board of Supervisors,” Dugar told The Oaklandside. “Their plan has to be approved by the election commission before it goes to the Board of Supervisors.”

Each supervisor will be able to appoint one member to the commission to represent each of the county’s supervisorial districts. Four commission members will be “at-large” and nominated by members of the commission. The final four members will include one representative from the Alameda County League of Women Voters, a member of a disability rights organization, a member of the ACLU of Northern California, and one person from a voting rights organization.

“Elections in Alameda County are a bedrock of our democracy that require the highest levels of transparency and accountability, particularly in today’s climate of election denialism and partisanship,” Steven Hill, a co-founder of the voting rights group Fairvote, told the supervisors during Tuesday’s meeting. “An elections commission will help facilitate better elections in partnership with the registrar of voters.”
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors also approved construction contracts to remodel office space within the registrar’s office in the basement of the Rene Davidson Courthouse in Oakland to better allow members of the public to physically observe the processing of ballots during elections.

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.