Cesar Zepeda Wins Richmond City Council Race After Name Is Drawn From Red Shopping Bag

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Two men smiling at the camera, one white, the other Latino
Richmond City Council District 2 candidates Andrew Butt (left) and Cesar Zepeda. (Courtesy of the candidates' campaigns)

Update, 10 a.m. Thursday:

Talk about luck of the draw! Cesar Zepeda was announced the winner of the Richmond District 2 City Council race on Tuesday morning after the city clerk pulled a green envelope with his name in it out of a red paper shopping bag.

Zepeda will be the first openly gay man to serve on Richmond’s City Council. He’s scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 10.

The unusual process, which was livestreamed but not open to the public or the press, was conducted to break a tie between Zepeda and his opponent, Andrew Butt, who received the exact same number of votes last month in their bid for the seat.

Standing in the Richmond City Council chambers Tuesday morning, the two candidates, both wearing masks covering their mouths and noses, were instructed by City Clerk Pamela Christian to write their names on slips of paper, seal them in small green envelopes, and place each envelope in a small, red, paper "Christmas bag," as Christian referred to it.

Christian then instructed both candidates to individually shake the bag. Butt, dressed casually, went first, giving it a hearty jiggle. Zepeda, in a suit and tie, followed with a gentler touch, prompting Christian to playfully chide him: "Come on, Cesar, shake it!"

Two pics, each of two men standing in front of a table.
In these two, very grainy screen grabs from the livestreamed video, Richmond City Council District 2 candidates Andrew Butt (left) and Cesar Zepeda first put their names in green envelopes and then put the envelopes in a red shopping bag, as Richmond City Clerk Pamela Christian observes behind them. The tie-breaker event took place in the Richmond City Council chambers at 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Dec. 6, 2022. (Taken from livestream provided by City of Richmond)

With each candidate holding on to either side of the bag, Christian then reached in and mistakenly drew both envelopes. She then put both envelopes back in the bag and instructed the candidates to repeat the shaking process and resume their positions on either side of the bag. She then drew a single envelope, slowly opened it and announced:

"The winner for District 2 is Cesar Zepeda. Congratulations."

For a brief moment, both candidates appeared stunned, facial expressions veiled by their masks. They then shook hands, amid a sprinkling of applause, at which point the livestream ended.

After the drawing, Zepeda dashed off to his day job, as a benefits consultant, and said he was still processing the news.

"My emails, my texts and every messaging app I have has been blowing up for the past couple of hours," he told KQED. "It hasn’t quite yet hit reality."

Zepeda acknowledged the quirkiness of the tiebreak process, and said the city should reconsider how to resolve future deadlocked races.

"While it’s not very common, we need to make sure that we lean more on the democratically elected person versus luck of the draw," he said, suggesting that a runoff election could be a fairer method of determining a winner.

For his part, Butt said he was still a bit stunned.

"I’m taking it all in right now," Butt said on Tuesday, after the drawing. "It’s not a great way to decide these things."

Butt said his family on Wednesday had filed the official paperwork requesting a recount, and was negotiating how to divvy up the considerable cost of it. The decision to do so, he told the East Bay Times, was driven by a "combination of wanting to follow it through to the end having come this far, and feeling like there are some issues worth looking into."

Original story, 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2: A hotly contested City Council race in Richmond is going to be decided old-school raffle style ... with a random drawing.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The move comes after District 2 candidates Andrew Butt and Cesar Zepeda both received the same number of votes — 1,921, to be precise — in a recount that Contra Costa County election officials performed by hand this week, ahead of Friday's vote-certification deadline.

Richmond's newly redrawn District 2 covers a large swath of the city's west side, including Point Richmond and other communities near its shoreline. Chevron's oil refinery is also located within the district.

While the county oversees Richmond's elections, the city takes over in the extraordinarily unlikely event of a tie. Election code allows for a standard game of chance to be used to break any such stalemate — be it a coin flip, a roll of the dice, or a drawing — said Helen Nolan, the county's assistant registrar of voters.

Per obscure Richmond city protocol (PDF), both candidates will appear before the city clerk, who will then "place the name of each candidate in a sealed unmarked envelope and the tie shall be broken by lot."

"It's totally surreal and it just feels very bizarre, frankly, that after all the effort and all the votes that it would ultimately come down to pure luck," said Butt, the son of outgoing mayor Tom Butt. He said a runoff election seemed much more sensible, and criticized officials for failing to adequately inform the public — not to mention the candidates themselves — about the process.

"I find it pretty odd, honestly," Butt added. "It seems a peculiar way to decide an election."

Until the county's audit this week, Butt had clutched onto an incredibly narrow, yet decisive lead — of five votes. But that advantage evaporated when 11 ballots that had been initially sidelined due to minor voter errors, were reintroduced into the mix, leveling the playing field.

To make matters all the more confounding, it remained unclear on Friday exactly when the drawing would actually happen, as the city clerk was reportedly out sick that day, and her office staff said a date — presumably for the following week — had yet to be scheduled.

"There's definitely some anxiety there, right, because we want to know the results already. We've been waiting so long," said Zepeda, the second candidate, who had never heard of an exact tie happening before in a Richmond election.

"But ultimately, what I'm also feeling is excitement. Because it's exciting to be able to see the process of voting come to life," he added. "Many people usually question themselves whether their vote matters or not. Here you can see it. The difference could have been one vote."

Zepeda agreed with his opponent that a runoff may have been a good option.

"But democracy works all the way to the 50-50, and part of democracy is the process that's been put into place," he said. "And democracy is still there because we voted for people that put this process into place years ago — about how to break the tie."

A dead-heat finish is not without precedent in the county. In 2018, the race for Byron-Bethany Irrigation District Division 1 director  resulted in a tie and was decided by ... the roll of a 20-sided dice.

This story includes additional reporting from KQED's Daisy Nguyen.