Rigging the Vote 

The city of Oakland manipulated a recent election — possibly to obtain the outcome it wanted.

Elections are supposed to be sacrosanct. Voters cast their ballots and whoever gets the most votes wins. But in a little-noticed election this spring, Oakland city officials appear to have violated that sacred trust by rigging a vote in order to obtain the outcome they wanted.

The vote manipulation took place during the tabulation of ballots for a $12 million tax measure. The measure proposed to raise property taxes for all Oakland property owners to finance the city's Landscaping and Lighting Assessment District. The LLAD, as it's known in city circles, has been around since 1989 and currently generates about $18 million in annual property tax revenues. It pays for street lights, along with maintenance and upgrades of city parks. The proposed tax increase would have boosted annual revenues from the LLAD tax to about $30 million.

To understand how the vote was manipulated requires some background into how the city conducted the election. Instead of voters going to the polls, they cast ballots by mail. In addition, only Oakland property owners were allowed to vote in the election, because they were the only people directly affected by the measure. The ballots were sent out in April, and the city tallied the results in late May.

The election was not your typical one-person-one-vote affair. Instead, the city converted each ballot into a dollar amount. The value of each was dependent on how much the property owner would pay under the tax increase. For example, if a property owner was already paying $100 a year to the LLAD, and was to go up to $150, then the value of his or her ballot was $50.

The city last attempted to raise the LLAD tax in 2006, but it was defeated. Most property owners voted against it, but the real tipping point was the Oakland public school district, public records show. The proposed increase would have forced the school district to pay the city about $700,000 a year in new taxes. But Randy Ward, then state administrator for city schools, cast the district's $700,000 worth of ballots against the tax increase. Ward, who is now the superintendent of San Diego County schools, said last week that he opposed the tax at the time because he believed the city should have made its own budget cutbacks before trying to take money needed to educate kids.

In the most recent election, however, the office of new state administrator of the school district, Vince Matthews, chose not to cast a ballot, even though it would cost the district $700,000 a year. His decision proved pivotal. Last month, the city council declared that the tax increase had passed 53 percent to 47 percent. As in 2006, most Oakland property owners voted against the new tax, but city officials said the measure won anyway because the Port of Oakland voted for it. The port's votes were valued at $1,405,000, which gave the measure more than enough to win.

It turns out, however, that the city valued the port's votes at nearly three times more than they should have been worth. And without that vote manipulation, the LLAD would have lost.

The questionable vote counting was first noticed by local activist David Mix, an opponent of the tax increase. Mix wrote a letter to the city last month protesting the overcounting of the port's votes along with several other issues. When city officials ignored him, Mix turned to good-government activist Charles Pine, a recent candidate for the city council's at-large seat.

Mix had obtained the raw voting data from the city, and after reviewing it, Pine concluded that the city had "tampered" with the port's votes. Pine then posted on June 30 a report about his and Mix's findings on the web site, Oakland Residents for Peaceful Neighborhoods, ORPN.org. The next day, Pine told Full Disclosure what he and Mix had found.

After some investigation, it seemed apparent that city officials had either made a huge mistake or had purposely overcounted the port's votes. Mix and Pine uncovered port and city records — and I found more — that showed that the port's votes should have been worth only about $553,000, not $1,405,000. The reason was simple: both city and port records show that the port was already scheduled to pay the city $852,000 this year in LLAD taxes, and that under the proposed increase, its taxes would go up by $553,000 to $1,405,000.

If the port's votes had been counted as they should have, then the tax increase would have lost. The "yes" votes would have amounted to $2,378,697 compared to the "no" vote total of $2,826,991. Records from the 2006 election show that the city had overcounted the port's votes then too, but it didn't change the outcome because of the school district's vote against the tax increase.

To find some answers, I called Joe Francisco of Francisco & Associates, a private engineering firm that conducted the election for the city. However, Francisco said last week that he had been instructed by city officials not to answer questions, and directed me to Jocelyn Combs of the city's public works department. But Combs also refused to be interviewed for this story, and directed me to the office of City Attorney John Russo. However, Russo's spokesman Alex Katz, said the office also had "no comment."

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