Borenstein: Oakland used wrong boundaries for key school board election

Borenstein: Oakland used wrong boundaries for key school board election

In yet another election error affecting the Bay Area’s third-largest city, Oakland officials have been using the wrong district boundaries as they prepare to hold a special election that will determine the balance of power on the city’s badly divided school board.

Until I raised questions this week, City Clerk Asha Reed was planning that ballots for the Nov. 7 election to fill a school board vacancy would go to voters in “new” boundaries that were created during the city’s 2021 redistricting.

But the “old” pre-redistricting boundaries in effect three years ago are the ones that should be used. That’s because the special election for the school board’s District 5 seat will select someone to fill out the remaining year of a term that was first decided by voters in 2020.

That was the advisory opinion of the office of state Attorney General Rob Bonta in a legal analysis last year for an identical case. Reed now acknowledges that, based on that opinion, her office should have been using the old boundaries for the special school board election.

It’s the fourth election error affecting Oakland to come to light in the past year — and the third stemming from the City Clerk’s Office.

Reed, after ducking calls about the issue for nearly two days, said in an emailed statement Wednesday that she now plans to conduct the balloting under the old boundaries and that she would ensure that candidates who are running live within those boundaries.

However, the deadline for candidate filing was Friday. Reed ignored questions about whether prospective candidates were given wrong information about residency requirements that might have dissuaded them from running and how she plans to rectify that.

At stake is not just representation of a heavily minority district surrounding the Fruitvale neighborhood but also control of the seven-member school board, currently frequently split 3-3 on key issues, with a key difference being how deferential the two sides are to the city’s powerful teachers’ union.

Reed is responsible for directing the Alameda County elections office on how the balloting should be conducted. Krystal Sams, who oversees elections and political compliance in Reed’s office, said Monday morning that the special school board election was being conducted using the new district boundaries.

It was that surprising comment that prompted my further inquiry and the discovery that Oakland was once again plagued with election mistakes.

In last year’s mayoral race, Reed’s office gave wrong information to candidates about the filing deadline, leading to two candidates’ missing the cutoff and leaving a third scrambling to file paperwork in time. The city then told that third candidate that her required endorser signatures were insufficient but relented after the candidate complained to the California Secretary of State’s Office.

Previously, the city clerks of Alameda County municipalities using ranked choice voting, including Oakland, agreed to give voters the ability to rank up to five candidates in each contest. But Oakland’s charter requires voters be allowed “to rank as many choices as there are candidates,” which in the case of the mayoral race was 10 candidates. That didn’t happen.

Another error stemmed from a programming mistake in the Alameda County elections office’s tabulation system used for Oakland and other cities that conduct ranked-choice voting. Ironically, the upcoming special election for the Oakland school board vacancy would have never come to be if that error had not been caught.

The District 5 vacancy that’s the subject of the special election was created after incumbent Mike Hutchinson won election in 2022 to the adjacent District 4 seat. In the city’s redistricting following the 2020 census, Hutchinson’s home was moved from District 5 to District 4.

He could have served the remainder of his District 5 term but then would have had to wait until 2026 to run in District 4. Instead, he opted to run for the District 4 seat in 2022.

At first it appeared that he had lost the 2022 election, but a mistake in the programming of the county’s software for ranked-choice voting was discovered, and a recount of the ballots determined that he had finished first. His leading opponent, Nick Resnick, eventually conceded, and a judge subsequently declared Hutchinson the rightful winner.

The two candidates running to replace Hutchinson in District 5 are Jorge Lerma, a former principal and longtime education advocate, and Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, a parent education organizer.

The city clerk’s office on Monday listed both candidates as qualified to run. But Reed in her statement Wednesday appeared to backtrack, saying only that her office will “ensure that the proper candidates are certified for the ballot.” Reed did not respond to questions about Lerma’s and Ritzie-Hernandez’ eligibility under the old boundaries.

What’s unclear — and might never be known — is whether other candidates would have entered the race if the city clerk’s office had used the correct district boundaries.

In Oakland, the City Council and the school board use the same district boundaries for elections. The old District 5 boundaries include more-affluent neighborhoods north of the MacArthur Freeway and west of Park Boulevard. Those neighborhoods were lopped off when the new boundaries were drawn in 2021.

It’s still unclear why Reed, until Wednesday, was using the wrong, new boundaries. She also did not answer questions about who was involved in that decision or whether she had consulted the city attorney before making it.

There are a lot of answers the residents of Oakland deserve about the city’s latest election debacle.

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