Too close to call: City Council District 31 special election will be first NYC race decided by ranked-choice voting

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Selvena Brooks-Powers cast her ballot at Pilgrim Church in Arverne on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

The city’s first true test of ranked-choice voting began to take shape Tuesday, Feb. 23, as results from the special election in City Council District 31 began to trickle in.

Though Selvena Brooks-Powers currently leads the count as of Wednesday morning, Feb. 24, as it currently stands, none of the nine candidates in the race –  Brooks-Powers, Nancy Martinez, LaToya Benjamin, Latanya Collins, Sherwyn James, Nicole Lee, Pesach Osina, Shawn Rux or Manuel Silva – have secured more than 50 percent of the vote, triggering a ranked-choice voting recount. 

Brooks-Powers secured 38 percent of the vote (2,613 votes), with 97 percent of scanners reported as of Wednesday morning, while Osina is close behind with 35 percent of the vote (2,406 votes), according to unofficial results from the city’s Board of Elections. Silva is the only other candidate to have received more than 10 percent of the vote (10.1 percent, 694 votes).

The candidate with the fewest votes, which at this time appears to be Lee, will be eliminated and the second round of counting will begin in the coming weeks. The approximately 60 voters who selected Lee as their first choice will see their ballots go to the candidate they marked as their second choice. The new totals will be counted and the process will repeat itself until a candidate surpasses the 50 percent threshold.   

Selvena Brooks-Powers (Photo courtesy of Brooks-Powers campaign)

“I want to thank all those who voted today and participated in our democracy, and I want to thank all of my supporters who made this possible. I am a daughter of southeast Queens, and the momentum and support for my candidacy has been so empowering,” Brooks-Powers said Tuesday night. “While there was substantial confusion about ranked-choice voting, these early results are promising and I look forward to all of the votes being counted. Our community deserves to have a fighter in City Hall to ensure we can recover from this pandemic and finally get our fair share. Today we have completed the campaign for the special election, and now we must move forward, complete the counting and make sure every voice is heard.”

During a Zoom party after the polls closed Tuesday night, Brooks-Powers expressed confidence that she would be named the winner of the election.

“I’m so excited at the fact that I am going to be elected into the City Council and I feel humbled, I feel blessed [and] I feel appreciative,” she said, adding that she will “wait through this process for all the votes to be counted.”

Osina, who finished second in the special election to fill the seat in 2013, when he lost by fewer than 100 votes, again found himself in second place Tuesday night. However, unlike in 2013, Osina could see himself bounce back in the race once the second round of counting is completed.  

“We’re watching the returns and we feel we’ve run a great campaign and we await the final results,” Osina said in a statement Tuesday night. 

Pesach Osina (Photo courtesy of Osina’s campaign)

The winner of the Feb. 23 special election will unlikely be determined anytime soon, as the city’s Board of Elections won’t begin the next count until they’ve received all absentee and military ballots. Only then will the second round of counting begin, a process that will be open to the public to watch.

Though Tuesday’s election is not the first in the city’s history to utilize the new voting system – that distinction goes to the special election in District 24 – it is the first to go into the second count. 

City Councilman James Gennaro received around 60 percent of the vote during the District 24 special election on Feb. 2, negating the need for a second round of counting. The results of the race were certified on Feb. 18 and Gennaro was sworn in to the seat he held from 2001 until 2013 that same day.

Candidates in both Tuesday’s election and the Feb. 2 election in District 24, expressed concerns over the extent to which the public has been informed about the new system. 

Brooks-Powers noted that she heard the two Queens races referred to as “guinea pigs,” a term she found alarming. 

“I find that problematic, obviously,” Brooks-Powers told QNS before the polls closed Tuesday. “These are races that will impact the day-to-day quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people.”

The entire city will utilize ranked-choice voting during the June primary elections, which will feature a large slate of candidates for mayor, comptroller, public advocate and more than 110 candidates for City Council in Queens alone. 

Turnout in Tuesday’s election was relatively low, with around 7,000 ballots cast in-person and around 1,700 cast early, accounting for around 7 percent of the approximately 102,580 registered voters in the City Council district. 

However, voters will get a second and third shot at voting for a council member in the district this year. 

The winner of the special election will serve until the end of 2021, when Richards’ council term was set to end. A primary election in June – likely to feature many, if not all of the candidates who ran in Tuesday’s election – and a general election in November will send a council member to the seat to serve until 2023.

The race for District 31, which covers parts of Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale and Springfield Gardens, was first triggered when Richards, who has served the district in the council since 2013, won the special election for Queens borough president.