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California city council race decided by drawing name out of gift bag


(RICHMOND CITY, Calif.) — After his race for a Northern California city council seat ended in a tie, candidate Cesar Zepeda wore several good luck charms to the drawing that would determine the winner — including a pocket square pin and “love is love” socks.

Luck ended up being on his side: Zepeda won the Richmond City Council District 2 race after his name was drawn out of a red gift bag on Tuesday.

After completing its ballot counting and audit last week, the Contra Costa County Elections Office determined that Zepeda and his opponent, Andrew Butt, had both received exactly 1,921 votes in November’s election.

To break the tie, the Richmond City Clerk’s Office instructed them to write their names in Sharpie on a piece of paper, place it in an identical unmarked envelope, seal it and each take turns shaking the bag in a process that was livestreamed on the city’s website.

After the first attempt saw Richmond City Clerk Pamela Christian draw both envelopes, the bag was vigorously shaken again before she drew out one lime green envelope — Zepeda’s.

“I am the first openly gay man to serve on our council,” Zepeda told reporters in emotional remarks following the draw.

“I want to be able to lead the community with that mindset that we could be different, but if our goals are to make our community better, we can, whether you’re a gay man, whether you’re a straight person, we can do it together,” Zepeda, a health and benefits consultant, said.

Meanwhile, his opponent was wishing for a different outcome.

“Yeah, the one where I won,” Butt said.

“In a perfect world, there would be an opportunity to have another vote, you know, a runoff or something like that,” Butt, a local architect, told reporters. “But you know the reality is that takes time and money and you know we’re short on both. … I don’t know what else to, do honestly.”

California election law stipulates that tied elections be determined by lot — or chance. In Richmond, the city council previously established that process, with a June 2022 resolution stating that the “City Clerk shall place the name of each candidate in a sealed unmarked envelope.”

Prior to the draw, the candidates joked they should resolve the tie by literally racing, or in a dance-off.

“In some ways, it’s interesting and exciting to be a part of it, right, because there’s sort of history being made here. But obviously it’s incredibly nerve-wracking,” Butt told ABC San Francisco station KGO, calling the process “surreal” and “insane.”

Richmond could hold a runoff in a future election, if the city changes its rules before then, according to Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.

Contra Costa County has had to resolve ties through chance in the past. In 2018, a race for the director of the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District was decided by rolls of a 20-sided die.

California isn’t the only state to decide elections by lot. Twenty-eight states determine winners by drawing of lots “or similar random methods,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Just last month, a tied mayoral race in Butler, Kentucky was decided by a coin toss. Last year, the winner of a tied city council race in Portland, Maine, was determined by drawing a name out of a wooden bowl.

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