See update below -- Department of Elections error caught by Crowley campaign
For candidates F.X. Crowley and Norman Yee, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Late last night, after all of the Department of Elections' official Ranked-Choice Voting tabulations were ostensibly over, the District 7 contenders refreshed their computers once more and were floored:
"Due to a formatting error, the [report] released at 10:30 p.m. displayed incorrect numbers which affected the listing of the candidates in the last round. Below is the correctly formatted report."
And, just like that, 338 votes were flopped, and Crowley and Yee flipped places. Suddenly it was Crowley ahead by a whisker with only provisional and absentee ballots to be counted, and not Yee. "I could be doing better," said Yee this morning. Crowley, meanwhile, quipped, "I can tell you I am very happy to be on the other side of the numbers."
Department of Elections head John Arntz hasn't yet returned SF Weekly's calls this morning -- then again, both Crowley and Yee say they haven't heard back yet either. But the explanation both candidates say they were offered at around midnight is shockingly low-tech:
The Department of Elections seems to have gotten its preliminary numbers right. But it apparently lined up the numbers columns poorly with the name columns. Both Crowley and Yee say this is what they were told.
"It's a fairly simple explanation. We'd like to know more," says Yee. "That error brings up the question -- what if there are other errors?"
Like Yee, Crowley has sent "observers" to the Department of Elections. With permanent absentees and election day votes counted -- and, barring further formatting errors, placing Crowley narrowly ahead of Yee -- all that's left to be tallied are provisional and absentee ballots. Both Yee and Crowley say they've asked how many ballots we're dealing with here, and have not yet received an answer.
Those questions -- and many more -- can and must be answered before this thing is over. But, for the moment, a snafu has rendered the mood in Crowley's and Yee's camps a tale of two campaigns:
"It was euphoria," says Crowley of last night's shocker. "And if the numbers hold, I am in pretty good shape."
Says Yee: "Of course it was unpleasant. But we have to just hold on and hope for more positive results."
Update (9:58 a.m.): Elections head John Arntz returned our call. He methodically explained what went wrong last night; turns out a format adopted to make ranked-choice voting (RCV) easier for people to follow led to the mistaken reporting of who was actually winning the race.
Arntz notes that the candidates' name columns "are static" -- they don't move, and, through the first five rounds of RCV tabulations, neither did the standings. Yee was ahead until round six. At that point, after Mike Garcia's second- and third-place votes went in large numbers to Crowley, he pulled ahead of Yee.
The Department of Elections, however, failed to move Crowley's name to the top of the list. It continued to list the first-place numbers with the top-listed name -- Yee's name. Except, in this case, Yee had been assigned Crowley's numbers, and vice-versa.
Arntz says he was first tipped to this by number-crunchers within the Crowley campaign. He expresses confidence, however, that his department would have caught the mistake eventually.
The choice to have static name columns was adopted in order to make it easier to follow the twists and turns of RCV. Perhaps -- but it also led to this situation. This is the first time the Department of Elections has attempted to process so much information on election night; Arntz calls this error "a learning experience."
The race is still very much in play. The Department of Elections has still yet to tally around 95,000 ballots (meaning San Francisco's final election turnout will be at around 75 percent). This unprocessed haul includes mail ballots that arrived either they day before or day of the election and yesterday's City Hall votes. It also includes around 24,000 provisional ballots.
Arntz is uncertain how many of those uncounted ballots hail from District 7. But he doesn't expect to get through that stack until Friday or even Saturday. For Crowley and Yee, it figures to be a rough couple of days -- followed by either a great or terrible weekend.