That school-board winner from November? Sorry, he actually lost.
by The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, January 6, 2023
Nearly two months after November’s election, Alameda County, Calif., has announced that it systematically counted the ballots wrong. Oops. The error didn’t affect the outcome in most races, but it flipped a seat on the Oakland School Board, and now the question is what to do about the certified winner who actually lost and the third-place finisher who won.
Blame the mess on official incompetence, but reserve some ire for ranked-choice voting (RCV), a system that makes it complicated even to explain the mistake. RCV asks voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If nobody wins an outright majority of first votes, the bottom candidate is eliminated, and his supporters are reshuffled based on their subsequent choices. This continues until a majority winner emerges.
But what if portions of a ballot are left blank? Imagine that a voter selects Kathy as his No. 2 choice, while marking nobody in the No. 1 slot. The way the system is intended to work, that ballot would count for Kathy in the first round of RCV tabulation. When a voter leaves a hole in his ranking, in other words, his subsequent preferences are supposed to move up to fill the gap.
Instead, Alameda County’s software was inadvertently configured so ballots with blanks would be “suspended” for that round of tabulation. This affected more than 200 votes for school board. The bad tallies show current board member Mike Hutchinson with 8,112 votes in the first round, trailing two challengers, Pecolia Manigo with 8,153 and Nick Resnick with 9,954. Therefore, Mr. Hutchinson was eliminated, and the eventual winner was Mr. Resnick.
If those 200 ballots are counted accurately, however, the ranked-choice election takes a different turn. Mr. Hutchinson moves ahead of Ms. Manigo in the first round, so she’s the one eliminated. Her supporters prefer Mr. Hutchinson, who goes on to beat Mr. Resnick by a few hundred votes. It’s another reminder of RCV’s sensitivity to marginal differences in rankings that alter the order of elimination.
Since software setup was the problem, RCV advocates say this was the kind of human error that could happen under any voting system. Who are they kidding? Nothing on this mortal plane is perfect, but surely one reason that Alameda County’s goof wasn’t noticed for almost two months is that RCV tabulation is complicated and opaque. The county figured out the issue only after it was flagged by an RCV advocacy group. Five point for transparency, and minus 50 points for complicity.
“Guess what I just found out,” Mr. Hutchinson posted on Facebook last week. “I won the election!” The Oakland NAACP is now demanding a manual recount of the election for mayor, which was decided by 677 votes after a dizzying nine rounds of RCV tabulation. Traditional plurality elections have their drawbacks, but at least they don’t do that.