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These Bay Area Elections Were Decided by a Handful of Votes

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Woodside voters headed to the polls for a special election in November of 2021 and narrowly passed Measure A, which rezoned 2 parcels of land in the town center to be used for community gatherings. It was one of the closest elections in San Mateo County history, according to Jim Irizarry, assistant assessor-county clerk-recorder. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Primary Election 2024 Live Updates: follow KQED reporters as we cover election results from across California and the Bay Area.

It’s an old saying in elections: “Every vote counts.”

But in this era of increased electoral college gridlock, congressional gerrymandering and uncontested races, you might feel like your individual ballot won’t be the difference between victory and defeat for candidates or ballot measures in California’s March 5 primary election.

Well, these campaigns from Bay Area history might convince you otherwise.

Keep reading for a sample of races and measures decided by the slimmest of margins. In each race, a different decision by a group of friends, a family or even a single person would have changed history in its own small way.

“As an elections official, I always hope for a high turnout and wide margins; that’s sort of the easiest thing to call,” said Kristin Connelly, registrar of voters in Contra Costa County. “But every vote counts, and we take that very seriously.”

Without further ado, here are a handful of entrants in the Bay Area Election Nail-Biter Hall of Fame:

Tied votes (when candidates receive exactly the same number of votes)

  • In 2018: Byron Bethany Irrigation District Director 1 
  • In 2022: Sunnyvale City Council, District 3 
  • In 2022: Richmond City Council 

Rules on how to break electoral ties vary by jurisdiction. In the Byron Bethany Irrigation District — a multi-county special district serving an area that includes parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties — it required the roll of a 20-sided die.

In Sunnyvale, the city clerk picked an envelope with Murali Srinivasan’s name on it out of a bag. And something similar played out in Richmond, where Cesar Zepeda won a tiebreaker over Andrew Butt when the city clerk drew an envelope out of a shopping bag.

After a recount, Zepeda was declared the winner by just three votes. Shopping bag don’t lie.

Decided by one vote

  • In 2022: Travis Unified School District, Measure M 
  • In 2020: Sausalito City Council 

It took weeks after the 2020 election to determine that Ian Sobieski had claimed the last of three open spots on the Sausalito City Council, finishing just ahead of incumbent Joan Cox.

“I am gobsmacked,” Cox told KPIX 5. “If I were to be defeated, it would be easier to be defeated by a larger margin, quite honestly.”

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Decided by three votes

  • In 2022: Antioch City Council
  • In 2007: Vallejo Mayor 

While the Zepeda-Butt tie in Richmond got all the attention in 2022, there was another incredibly close race also in Contra Costa County last election. In Antioch, incumbent Councilmember Tamisha Torres-Walker beat Joy Motts by just three votes.

More on California Elections

That’s the same margin of the 2007 mayor’s race in Vallejo when a recount lifted Osby Davis to victory over Gary Cloutier. That recount ended after Cloutier had already taken the oath of office, requiring an awkward transition in leadership that finally culminated the next year when Cloutier dropped a lawsuit challenging the ballot count.

Connelly, the Contra Costa registrar, said she expects the number of close races to grow quickly in the coming years as more jurisdictions move to district elections — with smaller pools of voters.

“If anything, we’re going to see more of this,” she said.

Decided by five votes

  • In 2021: Woodside, Measure A

Woodside voters headed to the polls for a special election in November 2021 and narrowly passed Measure A, which rezoned two parcels of land in the town center to be used for community gatherings.

It was one of the closest elections in San Mateo County history, according to Jim Irizarry, the assistant assessor-county clerk-recorder.

To Irizarry, the result “adds true meaning to the old adage” that this story began with … and well, you know the rest.

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