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Cesar Zepeda wins drawing to break tie in Richmond City Council race

Drawing will decide deadlocked Richmond City Council race
Drawing will decide deadlocked Richmond City Council race 02:18

RICHMOND – The luck of the draw was with Cesar Zepeda on Tuesday morning.

To break a tie in last month's election to represent District 2 on the Richmond City Council, Zepeda won in a drawing of sealed envelopes Tuesday morning in the council chambers.

Weeks after Election Night, Zepeda was tied with Andrew Butt, the son of Mayor Tom Butt. Both finished with 1,921 votes when the counting was done last week. Butt held the early lead on election night and during ensuing weeks, but Zepeda closed the gap just before the final count.

Richmond Election Deadlocked
Richmond city council candidates Cesar Zepeda (left) and Andrew Butt. KPIX

The final count concluded Thursday after 11 ballots were added to the mix when voters fulfilled a county request to verify signatures. Nine of the votes were added in Richmond, as two voters didn't fill out their choice for District 2.

The race was close enough to prompt county election officials to go back and recount votes by hand, as part of the required state audit of at least 1 percent of precincts.

While the Contra Costa County Elections Department does the counting, the city of Richmond retains the right to break any ties through a "game of chance," which is allowed by state election code. 

The city chose to put both candidates' names in random, sealed envelopes. Zepeda's was the chosen one.

It was an unusual civics lesson.

At 9 a.m. sharp in the Richmond City Council Chambers, the two candidates for the District 2 seat were asked to write their names on a card, with each secured in a sealed envelope.  

Out of nearly 4,000 votes cast in the race, they each had received 1,921 of them. The last time there was a tie in Contra Costa was in 2018, when two candidates for a tiny east county irrigation district had to roll a 20-sided Dungeons and Dragons die to determine the winner.  

Richmond wanted to avoid such a spectacle, so last June the Council, in sanctioning the election, included a tie-breaking system using the envelopes. Ironically, the final vote cast in approving the method came from Mayor Tom Butt, the father of candidate Andrew Butt.  

"I don't think in a million years, anyone who wrote that ordinance in that past election cycle thought, 'Oh, we're going to do this!" said Zepeda.

After the two envelopes were put in a large red shopping bag the first draw didn't quite go as planned, as City Clerk Pamela Christian accidently pulled both envelopes out of the bag.  

"Oh, I got two..." she said, as the room broke out in laughter.

Candidate Butt suggested she throw them both across the room and select one off the floor, but that received a terse rejection.

"...we will go with my bag," said Christian, who began furiously shaking it to mix the two envelopes up. 

Then, after some shaking and reshaking, an envelope was drawn and the voters of Richmond found out who they had elected.

"The winner for District 2 is Cesar Zepeda," announced Christian, holding out the name card.

But had the voters really spoken at all?  After the event, Andrew Butt had his doubts.

"I'm having some mixed emotions, you know. I'm just letting it settle in right now. It's a bizarre way to end many, many months of a lot of effort, and certainly, the voters didn't decide," he said. "I would like to say, 'well, that's democracy in action.' I'm not sure that applies to the luck of the draw."

And if that just sounds like sour grapes, it should be noted that Zepeda agreed with him.

"I think we better think about this," he said. "I think a runoff would have been better to be able to empower every single vote, because it wasn't until the end that we realized there were a couple of precincts that had zero voters so, a runoff would have allowed us to go knock more on those doors and say 'you need to come out.  We want to represent you.'"

Zepeda said it's been determined that the final vote cast in the election, the vote that tied the race up, arrived as a last-minute ballot from a member of the military serving overseas. 

And while It would be tempting to end a story like this with a line about how much every vote counts, the truth is, it is those who don't vote who are leaving our democracy up to chance.

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