On gray and cold Tuesday, at a warehouse in Middle Village, Queens, history was being made in New York City. For the first time ever, an election would be determined through ranked-choice vote counting. The process was long, meticulous and low-tech. On the first day of the count – which stretched from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. – New York City Board of Elections workers only managed to make it through the first round.
By the time the count ended on Thursday morning, after nine rounds of instant runoffs, Selvena Brooks-Powers had emerged victorious in the special election for New York City Council District 31 in Queens.
The Feb. 23 special election to replace Queens Borough President Donovan Richards in his former Council seat in Southeast Queens technically represented the city’s second election using ranked-choice voting. But the first, a race District 24 held on Feb. 2, ended with a winner on election night who got more than 50% of the vote, meaning further vote tabulation wasn’t needed. This time, based on first place choices among the nine candidates, Brooks-Powers held the lead with just 38% of the vote in the District 31 race, setting off the instant-runoff mechanisms. She kept her lead through nine rounds of counting – which didn’t begin until weeks after the election to allow all absentee ballots to come in and to permit time to cure mistakes with mail-in ballots– finishing with over 51% of the vote. Brooks-Powers, a veteran political operative, previously ran for the seat against Richards in 2013, and this year received significant establishment support. “I am honored to be elected by the residents of the 31st City Council District in Southeast Queens,” Brooks-Powers said in a statement. “I stand on the shoulders of the leaders that have come before me, but especially that of Juanita Watkins, the first woman of color to serve a NYC Council district and the only woman to have ever served the 31st District – almost 20 years ago.” (Mary Pinkett was the first Black woman elected to the City Council, Watkins was the Black woman elected in Southeast Queens.)
Before counting officially began, Bart Haggerty, the Board of Elections deputy chief clerk for Queens, addressed poll watchers and members of the public to explain how the process would go down. “This is a manual process that we're undertaking, so it will be tedious,” Haggerty warned. And he wasn’t wrong.
The first round began with a hand-recount of all the first place votes, basically recanvassing the election night results and absentee ballots. Board workers, wearing masks and sitting behind plexiglass dividers separating them from poll watchers, began an assembly line-like work. At the head of the table, two workers were simply counting out the over-7,000 ballots they would canvass. Next to them, two more workers began recording votes per candidate, election district by election district. The woman going through the ballots read the name of the top-ranked candidate before placing the ballot on the table next to a sticker with that candidate's name.
Pesach Osina, an event coordinator in the hospitality industry and community activist who lost in 203 and finished second on election night this year, performed strongly in the many of the first election districts to get counted. From behind the plexiglass, observers could hear a steady stream of “Pesach, Pesach, Pesach,” occasionally interrupted by the names of other candidates. With each name, another election worker ticked off a tally mark in red pen for the candidate. And when the count ended for each election district, workers gathered up the ballots and transferred them into blue bins labeled by candidate. The process continued for hours, a plastic sign behind the workers indicating what election district they were currently counting.
The first round may not have been the sexy part – to civic nerds, at least – of ranked-choice voting tabulation. But it still provided insight for observers about potential unforeseen complications. Notably, Osina – who attended the first day of the count – questioned the fact that some ballots were already getting exhausted. In ranked-choice voting, an exhausted ballot is one that can no longer be redistributed. The simplest way to think about it are cases where someone votes for only one person and that person gets knocked out. Because the voter didn’t rank anyone else, their ballot has nowhere else to go, and thus exhausted.
So how did this happen in the first round? People over voted, meaning they accidentally ranked more than one candidate as their first choice. Many of them were machine ballots cast at polling places, which the machine should have rejected and allowed voters to fix their mistake. “The machine is supposed to be able to spit out this ballot so you can cure it at the site,” Osina said. “The machine is accepting a lot more that it’s not spitting out.”
Haggerty said that on election night the machines picked up about 60 over votes. He explained that machines can detect those mistakes, but gives the voter the option to either fix the ballot or cast it anyway. He said that so far, the number of exhausted ballots showing up seemed to align with what the board was already aware of. “If we had several hundred, then I’d be more concerned,” Haggerty said. Round one ended with 88 exhausted ballots, which also included mail-in and affidavits that voters couldn’t fix if they over voted.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government advocacy group, said that the first round of counting still provided valuable insight about tweaks that can be made to education to minimize mistakes and maximize utility. “I think we’ll be looking to emphasize the right way versus the wrong way to fill in the ballot – which we already do with illustrations,” Lerner said. “I think we’ll be working with design experts and the board to figure out very clear instructions.” She noted though that exit polling performed by Rank the Vote NYC found that about 95% of people polled in this race and the Council District 24 race last month found the ballot simple.
With the first round completed, round two began on Wednesday, starting with the elimination of the 24 write-ins. For anyone wondering, that means that if you write in Mickey Mouse as your first choice, your second choice for a real candidate will still get counted. Once those votes were redistributed, the next candidate with the lowest total got knocked out: Nicole Lee. She was followed, in order, by Latyana Collins, Nancy Martinez, Shawn Rux, Sherwyn James and Latoya Benjamin in each ensuing round. Every time someone got eliminated, their votes got redistributed to the highest-ranked candidate on the ballot still in the running. If that was no one, the ballot was added to the exhausted bin.
The counting picked up again on Thursday morning, when the ninth and final round took place, eliminating Manny Silva, Richards’ former chief of staff, leaving just Brooks-Powers and Osina remaining. In total, Brooks Powers picked up 1,007 more votes over round one, while Osina – who also finished second on election night – only increased his total by 186 votes and ended with about 36% of the vote. “We ran a great campaign, but the voters of Queens’ 31st Council District have exercised their right, and used the power of their votes, their ranked votes... and they have spoken” Osina said in a statement. All told, 936 ballots were exhausted, representing 12.6% of all ballots cast. The rest either ended up with Brooks-Powers or Osina.
The next two special elections in the Bronx for Districts 11 and 15, taking place on March 23, will also be counted by hand if no winner is determined on election night. But by the June primaries, the New York City Board of Elections expects the state board will have approved software to complete the tabulations automatically so workers won’t have to hand count the many races happening then. Which will be a relief for election workers and eager voters alike.
Correction: This article originally misstated the date and district number of an upcoming special election. This post has also been updated to reflect that Mary Pinkett was the first woman of color elected to the City Council.
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