The revelation this week of an unprecedented error in Alameda County’s counting of election results has upended an Oakland school board race. But more lasting damage could be done to the reputation of ranked choice voting, a novel “instant runoff” format that is growing in popularity around the country.
Mike Hutchinson, the third-place finisher in a race for Oakland Unified’s District 4 school board seat, was told by election officials Wednesday that he may actually have won the race due to a technical mistake in how the county’s Registrar of Voters tabulated ranked-choice results.
The mistake itself involved a simple switch — a feature in the county’s election software that was incorrectly turned on, rather than left off. As a result, ballots where a first-choice candidate was missing were incorrectly counted.
“We incorrectly had the software set so that it did not elevate those votes when there wasn’t a vote in the first-choice column,” Registrar Tim Dupuis said in an interview Wednesday. “It was an error, and after being notified we immediately took that seriously and did the research to validate it.”
County officials are scrambling to figure out the process for re-certifying election results after they were formalized Dec. 8, and Dupuis hinted that it could require legal action on the part of the candidates involved. He could not be reached Thursday for an update on what steps need to be taken for Hutchinson to be rightfully elected.
The school board race is the only one that was affected, the registrar says. But it could not come at a worse time for election officials who are trying to allay fears about the legitimacy of results provided to the public.
The debacle could particularly be a black eye for ranked-choice voting. The system allows voters to select more than one candidate for a particular race by ranking them in order of preference and redistributes votes from the lowest performers until one candidate secures majority support and is declared the winner. The system eliminates the need for a separate runoff election when no candidate gets a majority of votes.
Ironically, the error affecting Hutchinson’s totals was detected by advocacy groups working to get jurisdictions around the country to adopt the format. They noticed a discrepancy while reviewing all of Oakland’s election results, which indicated that a special category of votes wasn’t being counted until the second round of ranked-choice results. The error was also caused by a decision made by the registrar’s staff, not a flaw in the election software.
“This is a learning moment for all of us, and I think it’s crucial we maintain transparency around the process no matter what,” said Rob Richie, the CEO of FairVote, which successfully lobbied for Oakland to first implement ranked choice in the city’s 2010 elections.