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This Queens Special Election Likely Real Test For Ranked-Choice Voting, As Locals Head To The Polls

Cindy Rodriguez :: Gothamist

Early voting starts Saturday for residents of the 31st Council District covering parts of the Rockaway Peninsula, Laurelton, Springfield Gardens, and Rosedale. The special election, replacing Donovan Richards who was elected Queens Borough President in November, has attracted an array of candidates in what may be the first real test of ranked-choice voting in New York City.

The contest follows the February 2nd election in the 24th Council District in eastern Queens, where James Gennaro, a former councilmember with big name recognition, easily won a majority. In securing more than 50% of the vote, his win denied voters the chance to see how ranked-choice voting can work. The process, which went into effect this year, is supposed to level the playing field for new and lesser known candidates by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference. The lowest ranked candidate is eliminated in rounds until one candidate emerges with majority support.

And with such low name recognition in the 31st Council District race, ranked-choice voting will play a larger role when compared to the 24th Council District race.

“Here we have nine candidates and I don’t think any of them bring the same type of bloc of votes where they could get 50% on that first ballot,” David Brand, managing editor of the Queens Daily Eagle, said. “So I’m really looking forward to see who is able to appeal to people as second choice or as a third choice.”

The three candidates who’ve raised the most money include Manny Silva, a community organizer and former chief of staff to Richards, Selvena Brooks-Powers, who has worked in government and for labor unions and has the backing of both Richards and Queens Democratic Party boss and Representative Gregory Meeks, and Pesach Orsina, who nearly beat Richards in a prior election and hails from the Jewish Orthodox community.

Mark Healy, editor in chief of The Wave, said Orsina is known in Far Rockaway, an area he said has been ignored by the city for a long time. Whoever wins the seat, he said, will be confronted with lingering issues like Superstorm Sandy recovery, poor transit, and the devastation wrought by the pandemic.

“People seem to think that Superstorm Sandy came and went and maybe it did in other communities,” he said. “In Rockaway, as several of the candidates brought up, we are still dealing with all kinds of issues.”

According to census data from 2010, which is the last time the country did a full count of the population, 160,123 people were living in 31st Council District, in which 68% of residents identified as Black, 10% white, and 16% were Latino. In 2013, the last time a special election was held, 9,147 of them voted. Richards, who is Black, received 2,646 votes and Orsina, who had a strong following among Orthodox Jewish voters, was right behind him with 2,567 votes.

The ongoing pandemic will further complicate voter turnout. Early voting begins Saturday and extends until election day, February 23rd. Early voting hours vary daily. Click here for a full list of early voting times and locations.

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