OAKLAND — The Alameda County Registrar of Voters has notified Mike Hutchinson, who finished third place last month in the District 4 Oakland Unified school board race, that he may actually have won the election after all.
Tim Dupuis, the county registrar, confirmed Wednesday that an error in the ranked choice voting algorithm threw out 235 ballots cast in the Nov. 8 contest where no one selected a first-choice candidate but did fill out second-choice or later categories.
Counting those ballots erases a 41-vote margin separating Hutchinson from second-place finisher Pecolia Manigo, and subsequent ranked choice vote transfers push Hutchinson ahead of Nick Resnick, whom the county on Dec. 8 certified as the race’s winner.
“This was a complete shock and surprise,” Hutchinson said in an interview. “This did not come from my campaign — I never challenged anything, even when I finished only 41 votes behind.”
Hutchinson, the current District 5 director on the school board, is looking to obtain a lawyer to challenge the results of the race.
“The issue is we still have to work through how to re-certify (the election) given what we’ve discovered,” Dupuis said in an interview. “We have to work this out through the election code.”
Oakland’s city charter requires that ranked choice ballots are counted even if no one is selected as a first-choice candidate, so long as second- or later-choice columns are filled.
Dupuis said the county did not follow this method, instead discarding those votes as “suspended” ballots.
The error may lend further scrutiny to the city’s ranked choice voting format, which came under fire after a tight city mayor’s race was decided by just a few hundred votes.
Oakland’s ranked choice voting system, which has been used since the 2010 election, drew criticism from some corners after last month’s mayoral race was decided by a tight margin. Critics such as the NAACP and losing mayoral candidate Loren Taylor said voters were not adequately educated on how to use the format, and Taylor likened it to “voter suppression” because of the way ballots are exhausted.
In the case of Wednesday’s school board election debacle, Dupuis was alerted to the counting error by two election groups: California Ranked Choice Voting Coalition and FairVote.
Both nonprofits advocate strongly for widespread adoption of the instant-runoff election format, which allows voters to rank their preferences in races with more than two candidates.
The groups reviewed the results in city races and discovered that the registrar may have incorrectly suspended ballots in all of them. But the discrepancy materially affected the outcome of just one race, for the District 4 school board seat.
Dupuis called Hutchinson, Resnick and Manigo on Wednesday morning to deliver the message that the results certified earlier this month may have been illegitimate.
“I can’t provide them with any kind of legal guidance — that’s not my role — but we are looking at how we can get this challenged (legally) so that we can be directed to re-certify it,” Dupuis said.
The new outcome of the race could prove to be very consequential for a school district where officials are at odds over the true state of finances.
Resnick, an executive at an education company, has supported in principle closing some of the district’s campuses, an issue that has divided the community.
Hutchinson, meanwhile, is so opposed to the idea that as the current District 5 director he’s leading the charge to rescind several previously approved campus closures in the coming weeks.
Hutchinson was in the middle of his first term on the school board when his home address was redistricted into District 4 earlier this year. That seat was up for election in November, and Hutchinson entered the race.
If the election is re-certified with Hutchinson as the winner, his District 5 seat will need to be filled by appointment for the final two years of the term.
Reached Wednesday, he was still taking in the sudden turn of events.
“As far as I know,” he said, “this is unprecedented.”
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