First, let’s understand what went wrong. According to both Oakland’s City charter and RCV election norms, if a voter skips a first-choice column or writes in an ineligible candidate, that voter’s ballot should be advanced immediately to the voter’s second-choice candidate. That’s how it’s always been done in San Francisco, which has the same Dominion equipment as used in Alameda County, and how Alameda configured its software for years.
In preparing for the 2022 elections, however, the Alameda County Registrar’s office turned on an incorrect setting on the vote-counting equipment to count local RCV races in several Alameda cities, including Oakland. This setting determines how ballots are counted if a voter leaves the first-choice column blank or writes in an ineligible candidate. It “suspended” such ballots so that they were not included in the first round. The rest of the votes were then used to determine whether a candidate had earned a first-round majority and, if not, which candidate was in last place and should be removed. Only in the second round, after a candidate had already been removed, were the suspended ballots brought back into the tally.
While that error may sound trivial and impacted only a few hundred votes that were delayed when they were added to the tally, it could have a big impact in an RCV system designed to make as many votes count as possible. Oakland’s District 4 school board race was extremely close among three candidates, with only 29 votes in the original first-round tally separating the original second-place finisher Pecolia Manigo and Mike Hutchinson. As a result, Hutchinson was removed after the first round, and only then were the suspended ballots added to the tally. Manigo picked up most of Hutchinson’s support, but narrowly lost to Nick Resnick in the final instant runoff.
But the suspended ballots should have been counted before Hutchinson was removed. After receiving the cast vote record provided by the county, my research team colleagues at FairVote determined that Hutchinson should have earned 80 additional votes in the first round and Manigo an additional 14. The corrected vote totals put Hutchinson in the first round ahead of Manigo by 37 votes. With this corrected tally, Manigo is the one who should be eliminated, with Hutchinson now facing Resnick in the instant runoff. Manigo and Hutchinson are both black and are more aligned on education policy, and Hutchinson was strongly preferred by Manigo’s backers as backup choice – enough to give him the edge over Resnick in the instant runoff.
So how does a mistake like this happen and what can we do about it?
First,the Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis should be thanked for recognizing his mistake and correcting it. Less than a week after FairVote and the Cal RCV Coalition alerted him to the error, he had confirmed the error, reviewed all elections that might have been affected by it and alerted the candidates in the school board race. Although earlier access to the cast vote record would have been ideal, providing it allows interested parties to examine the results for themselves – and the error is now fixed.
More broadly, it’s an unfortunate reality that election workers are overworked and underfunded. Between the demand for “stop the steal”-inspired FOIA requests and labor shortages, we’re witnessing human mistakes across elections of all types. Californians in 2022 saw errors on ballots in Riverside, Merced, and Tulare counties, for example.
We should provide election officials with more resources and support, twinned with greater transparency of decision-making. The Alameda County error was the equivalent of attempting to follow a recipe and accidentally mixing in the wrong ingredient. The answer isn’t to throw out the cookbook and the oven, or never to cook again. Instead, the answer is to get more help in the kitchen – and build in means to confirm your ingredients…..
…Looking ahead, Alameda County should set up a task force to study these elections, make recommendations and perhaps establish an ongoing advisory board to review and suggest practices and key decisions and institutionalize communication between the registrar’s office and the community…..