Cuomo cancels most June special elections

With confusion swirling about a handful of city, state and federal contests in which the special election and primaries would share a June 23 date and put some candidates on the same ballot twice, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to address the matter by eliminating some - but not all - special elections.

New York City Councilman Donovan Richards 2019

New York City Councilman Donovan Richards 2019 John McCarten/New York City Council

Update: After this article was published, the special election for New York City Council District 37 in Brooklyn on June 23 was canceled through an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It had not been part of the original order canceling the state Senate, Assembly and Queens borough president special elections on the same date.

With confusion swirling about a handful of city, state and federal contests in which the special election and primaries would share a June 23 date and put some candidates on the same ballot twice, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to simplify matters this week. 

On Friday evening, the governor signed an executive order canceling the four state legislative special elections, as well as the Queens borough president special election in New York City, all of which were scheduled for June 23. Instead, just the scheduled primaries for each of those races will take place.

Further complicating matters, however, the governor’s order doesn’t mention the special election contests to fill former Rep. Chris Collins’ old seat in Buffalo and an open New York City Council seat vacated by Rafael Espinal in Brooklyn, suggesting they will still be held on June 23. 

Due to the risk of spreading the coronavirus, Cuomo in March had rescheduled seven special elections from April to June 23, the state’s original primary date for state and federal legislative elections. That meant that if those seats also had competitive primary elections, candidates running in the special would have their name repeated on the same ballot for the primary, a confusing situation for many voters.  

To avoid complications, Cuomo on Friday canceled the special elections for state Senate District 50 near Syracuse, which had been held by Robert Antonacci, and for Assembly Districts 12 on Long Island, 31 in Queens and 136 near Rochester. Those seats will remain empty and be filled by the general election in November. 

Cuomo also canceled the special election for Queens borough president in Queens. Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee will continue serving until the role is filled in the November general election. It’s unclear whether the winner of the November elections will take office immediately. 

But Cuomo’s order doesn’t mention two of the special elections – that for Congressional District 27 in Western New York and New York City Council District 37 in Brooklyn. Unlike some of the special elections he canceled, where there were no contested primaries to cause confusion, both races pose potential complications. 

When asked on Saturday about the Western New York House race, Cuomo said, “Legally, I can’t affect a congressional race, a federal race.” Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa added that the governor has a mandate to call federal special elections, which is why it’s “the only one that will remain a special on that day.” She did not mention the New York City Council race that apparently is still happening. A spokesman for the governor did return a request for comment about these two races.

The special election to replace former Rep. Chris Collins had originally been one of the most closely watched races. Republican state Sen. Chris Jacobs is set to face Democrat Nate McMurray, who unsuccessfully challenged Collins in 2018. In February, before the coronavirus pandemic upended the election calendadr, Cuomo had set the special election for April 28, coinciding with the state’s original presidential primary date.

In this race, McMurray is the only candidate running the Democratic primary, so voters who support him will only vote for him once. Jacobs, on the other hand, in in a contested primary and is running against several other Republicans for the nomination for the November general election. So Jacobs is competing for the same seat in two races against a different set of candidates simultaneously. This may strip him of an advantage: Had he won the special election in April and taken office immediately, he would have enjoyed the power of incumbency for the June primary election. 

Jacobs is facing another issue as well. There is a possibility that he wins the special election, where candidates are picked by party leaders, but loses the primary election. For example, while a voter may prefer Jacobs over McMurray, that person may choose a different Republican for the primary. This would result in a situation in which, despite being the incumbent, he wouldn’t be able to run on the Republican line in November, potentially forcing him out of office at the end of the year.

Then, there is the issue of the Brooklyn City Council election, which appears to still be on. Many of the candidates on the ballot for the special election had also filed to run in the Democratic primary. But the New York City Board of Elections kicked off all but the party-backed candidate Darma Diaz from the primary ballot. Officials said the other candidates failed to get enough petition signatures, even under a new executive order from Cuomo that slashed the petitioning requirements due to the public health risks. 

Even if Diaz loses the special election, she would face an uncontested primary under the current framework. The special election winner would be forced to give up the seat at the end of 2021. As it stands, Darma is effectively guaranteed the seat beginning in 2021, and canceling the special election would not have changed that.

However, if Cuomo had done what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had called for, this would not be the case. De Blasio, along with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the good government group Common Cause, had called on the governor to keep the city’s two special elections – for Queens borough president and the open City Council seat – and allow those winners to serve out the remainder of their predecessors’ terms through 2021. This would have permitted the wider slate of candidates in Brooklyn to run a competitive race. 

Cuomo did the opposite, excluding the City Council race and keeping the general election for Queens borough president while canceling the special election, the winner of which would have only served until the end of 2020. De Blasio has not yet publicly addressed Cuomo’s executive order, and a spokesperson did not return a request for comment.