It’s midterm Election Day in the United States, and Oakland voters are headed to the polls, which close this evening at 8 p.m.
In the contentious mayoral contest, incumbent Libby Schaaf is vying to keep her job, while nine other mayoral candidates, including community organizer and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project Cat Brooks and civil rights attorney Pamela Price, seek to unseat her. Schaaf has been touting her recent efforts to tackle the homelessness crisis via her signature Tuff Sheds initiative, while Brooks has been has been critical of it.
The seats for city council districts 2, 4 and 6 are also up for a vote. District 2 Councilmember Abel Guillén is defending his seat against two competitors. Pam Harris, Sheng Thao, Nayeli Maxson and Joseph Tanios, among others, are contending for the District 4 seat, which will be vacated by Annie Campbell Washington, who is stepping down. In District 6, incumbent Desley Brooks is attempting to fight off Natasha Middleton and Loren Taylor, among others, for her seat.
Oaklanders will also cast votes for a California governor, choosing between Lieutenant Governor (and former San Francisco mayor) Gavin Newsom and businessman John Cox, and decide whether to send longtime United States Senator Dianne Feinstein back to Washington, or replace her with challenger Kevin de León, a state senator whose district represents downtown and East Los Angeles.
On the statewide ballot, which includes 12 propositions, major issues at play include whether or not to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a state law that limits local rent control laws, and whether or not to repeal a 2017 gasoline tax that is used to fund transportation infrastructure repairs.
Locally, voters will decide the outcome of another dozen or so measures, including Measure W and Measure Z, which address a proposed parcel tax on vacant properties and hotel workers’ pay and protections, respectively. Reform to cannabis tax law is proposed via Measure V.
Throughout the city, campaigners headed out on a last-minute swing through the precincts, while residents headed to the polls.
Michelle Blakeley, from Oakland, voted at Telegraph Baptist Center just before 1 p.m. She said she voted for Schaaf for mayor. “I think she’s had a tough job and has been doing pretty well. All the other people—I didn’t really know any of them, and I think they’re unproven in a lot of ways,” Blakely said.
Blakeley also said this was the first year she had researched all the judges on the ballot. “I wanted to make sure I was voting for judges that I actually appreciated their ideology, especially because of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings, I was really like, ‘Oh, I really don’t want these judges coming up if I don’t agree with them.’ It’s not necessarily if they’re Democrat or Republican, though—it’s where they stand,” she said.
Eric Bottino, a self-employed Oakland resident and regular voter, said he also voted for Libby Schaaf. “I trust her. I honestly didn’t know the other candidates, and I thought she’s been doing a good job, and I wanted some continuity,” he said.
Housing measures were the most important to him, he said. “I think we need to fix the housing problem in the Bay Area, but I didn’t find any measures I trusted, so I voted no on all of them,” Bottino said.
Bonita Wright, a poll inspector at the Telegraph Baptist Center, said that voting machines went down after an hour this morning, but they aren’t sure why. They’re allowing voters to cast paper ballots and when they’re finished, they’re being put in a locked case. They’ll be picked up at 5:30 p.m. and taken to the clerk’s office to be counted, she said.
“I’m seeing way more voters than usual,” said Wright, who has been working the polls for eight years. “Other than the machine issue, everything else is going well and we’re seeing way more people than we expected. The only thing is I don’t know which way they’re positioned—how they’re voting—so I think the results still feel very unexpected.”
She said she votes by mail every year because she can spend more time thinking about who she’s going to vote for: “And I don’t have to listen to the bickering on commercials this way. Candidates try pulling too many tricks that way—I want to know who I’m really voting for and I can do that on my own.” The big issue for her this election was property taxes, and candidates’ views on that topic, she said, influenced her decisions.
Charles McCoy, 21, voted at Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library in North Oakland. “This is my first time voting because I didn’t understand—didn’t think it mattered before. This is a—this is a statement I’m making. I want the current administration to know I’m here. They need to see we [young people] are able to make our own choices for things we believe in,” he said.
Michael Cotton, an East Oakland resident who was loading musical instruments into his truck with a friend on Foothill Boulevard near Frick Impact Academy, said he doesn’t know a lot of people who went to vote today, so he thinks it is one of the reasons why he made sure he did. He said, “The first time I voted was for Obama. The second time was against Donald Trump. For the midterm elections–if you just let it go by and you don’t vote, you can’t complain at all.”
“You have to vote if you want to change things in Oakland,” he added.
Nearby, Jowharah Brown and her cousin, Eunique Brown, were sitting in a car. Jowharah is a manager at Starbucks in Castro Valley, and said she and her three daughters, ages 3, 11 and 15, have not had steady housing in Oakland for more than two years. Her landlord wanted to charge her $3,200 a month for a three-bedroom home. She said she made sure she voted yes on Proposition 10 today. She says the housing situation in Oakland has to change. “It’s ridiculous,” she said.
Her cousin, Eunique, said she is unemployed and living out of her car. She also wanted to make sure she voted today on Proposition 10. She says they have a lot of friends who are homeless right now. “We can’t afford anything. It’s so expensive out here.”
Just before 4 p.m., Dopé Boiva cast her ballot at Franklin Elementary. She said she voted for Schaaf “because she’s doing a great job,” she said, “so why not let her finish her time?” It was her first time voting in Oakland (she just moved here), so the choices were a little confusing. “Voting between one, two or three and seeing the same name multiple times was hard.” In terms of the senate race, it was an easy choice. “We felt like the Democratic party was our best bet.”
At Franklin Elementary, poll inspector Alison Monroe said that by around 4 p.m. about 127 people had physically come in to vote. “This is the most young voters we’ve ever seen in an election,” she said.
Kenny Farris voted at the Seventh Avenue Church near Lake Merritt around 3:30 p.m. He said he voted for Cat Brooks. “I met her at the liquor store one day and she seemed awesome. I thought, ‘Hey, anyone that’s willing to come into the liquor store and talk to me I gotta vote for that person.’ Libby is cool, but I never saw her at the Fruitvale liquor store. She’s not down with the streets. Cat Brooks was in the street and she really seemed like she knew the people of Oakland.”
On the edge of the Samuel Merritt College campus, a community college in the East Oakland hills, students were waiting for the bus as the sun was beginning to set. Montel Floyd, 22, said he had voted earlier that day, and that he cared most about the Peralta Community College Trustee election effecting his own campus, the “animal cruelty” measure (Proposition 12), and the Oakland mayoral race. “I think we need a strong mayor right now. Someone else,” he said. “Or even if she is re-elected, hopefully we’ll see some change.”
Austin Soria, 18, said this was the first election for which he was eligible to vote—but he hadn’t registered and wasn’t voting. The advertisements for the candidates and measures were confusing, he said. “I tried to understand, you know, but the measures are not clear to me, I didn’t know what to vote for,” Soria said.
Resham MacFarlane, a massage therapist also waiting for the bus, was looking up on her phone whether she needed a stamp to mail her ballot and whether she could still mail it today. She said she was grateful that a friend had sent her a voter guide to help get through the marathon ballot, but “I was so confused, even with the guide.”
Across the street from the bus stop was a ballot drop box for students and neighbors. Two employees from the Registrar of Voters were picking up ballots for the fourth time that day. More than 500 ballots had been collected by 5 p.m., with several hours left of voting remaining.
Carolyn Anteneh came to drop off her ballot, saying that while nothing on the ballot stood out to her as particularly interesting, she had done her “duty” by voting. “The ballot was very confusing,” she said. “It felt like I was in college again.”
Throughout the city, several shops offered discounts or other incentives for people who could show they had voted. Commonwealth was offering discount pints, and Feelmore, a sex toy shop in downtown Oakland, had employees standing in front of the Alameda County Courthouse on Fallon Street surprising voters with free vibrators.
“I just wanted to have some fun and also just participate in a certain way. I actually voted on the first day that voting become available. I ran down from my house to the courthouse, went downstairs and voted, and no one was there,” said Nenna Joiner, the shop’s owner, who already voted in September. “It was just an opportunity for me to participate in some way and just give out things that we had around the store as well.”
“This was one vote, one vibe,” Joiner said, describing the rules of the giveaway. “That’s all you get. You can’t get them for your friends and you need to be 18.” In the first hour, she said, she gave away 75.
In District 6, candidate Loren Taylor was at his campaign headquarters on Foothill Boulevard around midday. Volunteer Christy McGough had just returned from placing door hangers for Taylor throughout the district, while Shereda Nosakhare was using a script to call voters to support him. Linda Taylor, the candidate’s mother, was hand-painting signs offering free rides to the polls for voters.
Taylor said he turned in his absentee ballot in-person with his children this morning at their school. “We’re feeling good,” he said of his campaign. We’ve put in a lot of good work. A lot of energy. I’m really overwhelmed by the volunteers. Everybody has come out to put time and energy and invest in this vision for a stronger District 6 and a stronger Oakland. That’s inspiring, motivating, energizing. We’re definitely running on a lot of adrenaline and feeling good where we stand and seeing it through to the finish line.”
Meanwhile, Natasha Middleton’s campaign spokesperson, Grant Martin, said the fellow District 6 candidate voted this morning and will spend the day talking to voters and “definitely be on the phone.”
“Right now it is all a numbers game,” said Martin.
Marlo Rodriguez, another candidate for District 6, was canvassing outside Frick Impact Academy around pick-up time at 3 p.m. She and her wife, Katherine Webb, had set up an ironing board table with a banner, flyers and candy. Rodriguez says they were modeling their set-up after Bakesale Betty’s ironing board table on the street so it wouldn’t block the sidewalk. “This is truly a grassroots campaign. My strongest point is the person-to-person contact. They know I’m a registered nurse. I’ll take care of our community,” Rodriguez said. She went on to say if she doesn’t win today, she will stay engaged in East Oakland and “may make another go of it.”
Campaign signs for District 4 candidate Nayeli Maxson dot her neighborhood. On Tuesday afternoon, Toni Gomez, Maxson’s campaign manager, was at her house, which she has chosen for the Election Day headquarters for her camp. “This is our campaign dog,” Gomez said, introducing Maxson’s pet to reporters. Sitting District 1 councilmember Dan Kalb was with Maxson in her office as she made last-minute “get out the vote” calls.
Maxson said she feels confident about the way things are going for her so far this Election Day. “Very excited,” she said. “Particularly positive—three women have the best shot of winning. Pam Harris and Sheng Thao are both really strong candidates, and each of us have a good shot. They are both very collaborative, and I can collaborate with them and work with them.”
Maxson’s mother, Nancy Mullane, was standing outside the house waiting for her daughter to return from door knocking so they could head out on another round of campaigning. “[I] lived my whole life as a journalist not endorsing anything, and your daughter decides to run for office and I go all in,” she said.
While walking away from a door on which she’d just left a flyer, Maxson said that in the parts of the district above Highway 13, her campaign has targeted only “likely” voters. Below I-580, they’ve targeted every voter. Maxson said she was inspired by the campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district in June, and did so by going beyond what Maxson said is the usual tactic of approaching only likely voters. Today, she was knocking on 492 doors in her East Oakland precinct. Earlier in the year, her group had knocked on every door in the district below I-580 to spread the word about her campaign and hand out voter registration cards. “We didn’t just go to likely voters; we went to all voters,” she said.
On Tuesday evening around 6 pm, District 4 candidate Joseph Simmons said via a phone call that they had three different teams covering Montclair, the Dimond, and the Laurel neighborhoods. He said he believes that candidates should be out themselves, and was stationed at Fruitvale and Rockridge BART stations from 5:30 am to 8 am. They will continue reaching out to people until polls close tonight, he said.
“We go after everybody. Even though we know some are likely voters, we let them tell us if they are voting or not,” said Simmons.
Of the conversations he had with people while canvassing the different neighborhoods today, he said most people are concerned about homelessness and hike in rent, and what can be done about the infrastructure. “They want someone who will be responsible after the elections,” said Simmons. Simmons said he is particularly concerned about people of color and said that he wants to make sure they don’t get left out.
About two dozen volunteers—from Oakland natives of 40 years to high schoolers volunteering for class—phonebanked for Cat Brooks from her campaign headquarters in West Oakland. Katie Tertocha, a volunteer coordinator for the campaign, said that around 60 volunteers have come through Tuesday, helping by offering rides to the polls, dropping off campaign leaflets in East Oakland and calling voters to remind them to vote for Brooks.
Christian Spencer and Chris Lauderdale are too young to vote themselves, yet were volunteering for Brooks’ campaign. Both 17-years-old, they are volunteering for their government class at Oakland Technical High School. “My teacher requires us to complete a certain amount of civic engagement hours. I chose to do this. I came a couple weeks ago and came back again because it was actually interesting. It was cool to talk to people,” Spencer said.
Cherri Murphy, a Lyft driver, has been with the Cat Brooks from Mayor campaign since it started in July. On Tuesday afternoon, she sat at a folding table with a sheet of numbers in front of her, calling voters. She’s hopeful that Oakland will elect a new mayor. “I’m feeling really good about it,” said Murphy. She said she’s optimistic because every Oakland passenger she talks to is voting for Brooks. When asked why she is not supporting the current mayor, she chuckled.
“That’s my response: I laugh,” said Murphy.
Across the table, another volunteer chimed in. “The state of the city tells you why not Libby,” said Cheri Lynn. “All the homeless people tell you why not Libby. The trash on the streets tells you why not Libby.”
Brooks herself cast her ballot Tuesday afternoon at her longtime West Oakland precinct. While waiting for her husband, an immigrant and first-time voter, to show up the polls, Brooks spoke with the swarm of media that showed up to watch her vote. When asked about her predictions for the election results, Brooks didn’t say much. “You never know, but we think we have a shot,” Brooks told the reporters.
Inside the precinct, the crew followed Brooks as she filled out her ballot. The candidate smiled and laughed, asking the photographers if they could see her ballot, to which the group answered “no.”
Meanwhile, at Schaaf’s headquarters in the Grand Lake district, interns and volunteers helped set up for the watch party scheduled for later that night. Pizza boxes were stacked on the counter and a handful of volunteers milled around in anticipation for polls to close. In the back of the camp’s headquarters, interns from her campaign prepared for Tuesday night’s watch party. Some blew up balloons and others taped streamers to the wall. The mayor herself was at City Hall.
Volunteer Ed Gerber, a retired Sacramento lobbyist who represented city and county government interests, sat by one of the windows overlooking Grand Avenue. He said he first met Schaaf when she was a Coro fellow, a national award to foster leaders for public office. When they first met, Gerber said, “I asked Libby to explain something to me. She was brilliant. I said, ‘If you ever decide to run for public office, let me know.’” Years later, Gerber volunteered for Schaaf’s first race for District 4 councilmember.
Becky Taylor was working the front desk at Schaaf’s headquarters, greeting visitors and making calls to undecided voters. A longtime friend of the mayor, Taylor said she was initially skeptical that Schaaf should run for mayor. “I think subconsciously I didn’t think she was really that tough. But now she’s proved she’s tough as nails. Her campaign slogan is ‘Oakland Tough,’” said Taylor.
Three hours before the polls closed, Schaaf greeted residents coming out of Oakland’s Rockridge BART station. “Have you voted yet?” asked the mayor, wearing an orange dress. Some walked past the mayor, not acknowledging her at all. Some stopped, mouths gaping open taking a few photos with the mayor. Nearby, a women with a Cat Brooks campaign sign attached to her backpack looked on.
“It wasn’t surprising to me that she ran, because I feel like she’s been running against me for five years,” said Schaaf when asked about what she thought of her opponent’s campaign.
Other advocates were getting ready to campaign outside of Oakland. In Frank Ogawa Plaza at 9 a.m., two volunteers sat on a 40-seat bus chartered by the California Democratic Party, eager to visit California’s 4th congressional district, which is located east of the capital and encompasses the Sierra from Truckee to the Sequoia National Forest, to help get out the vote for Democrat Jessica Morse’s campaign to unseat Republican Congressman Tom McClintock. Feeling that Bay Area congressional seats are secure for Democratic candidates, Teri Gerritz of Berkeley and Leah Ahmadi of El Cerrito hoped to make a dent in national politics by traveling to talk to voters whose choice might affect the balance of power in the United States House of Representatives.
“They’re living in a district where their vote makes such a difference,” said Gerritz, a retired teacher. “Ours here is important, but nothing like their vote in terms of education, Social Security, health care, climate change. Their votes really matter.”
Ahmadi asked her boss at environmental non-profit Sustainable Conservation to have Election Day off from work to volunteer. “The best antidote to fear is action, and I’ve been really fearful of the direction our country is going in, and I thought what better way to help activate voters and help them exercise their rights?” Ahmadi said.
For Gerritz, the current political moment carries the weight of history. “Being a child of [Holocaust] survivors, I always think of the role of the bystander, and I don’t want to be a bystander,” she said.
At 9:15 a.m., a third volunteer, Zahra Khan of San Francisco, ran up to the bus. “Thank you for waiting for me,” she said.
“Of course. You’re worth waiting for,” Gerritz said.
The three climbed onto the bus and rode off to Roseville.
In Oakland, many voters were casting ballots for the first time. Natalia Hernandez, a child development teacher, a first-time voter and immigrant from Colombia, said she just became a citizen after living in the United States for 14 years. She said voted at the Manzanita Recreation Center even though she just had surgery to get her appendix removed. “There’s no excuse,” she said. “You need to vote.”
Graciela Orozco moved from Mexico more than 35 years ago. “I have to vote because it is my obligation. I am a citizen,” she said, speaking in Spanish. Her husband, Jose Orozco, said he was voting to affect the lives of his grandchildren. “The purpose for me to vote is a privilege for me, for my family,” she continued.
This article was last updated at 5:45 p.m.
Text editing by Brian Perlman and photo editing by Drew Costley, with reporting and photography by Ali DeFazio, Katey Rusch, Mickey Capper, Shuang Li, Alyson Stamos, Julie Chang, Casey Smith, Vishahka Gupta, Sarah Trent, Carla Williams and Annie Berman. Social media reporting by Ashvini Malshe.