primary facts

As Queens DA Race Goes to Ballot Count, Former Favorite Faces Uphill Battle

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz speaks to her supporters on election night, June, 25, 2019.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz speaks to her supporters on election night, June, 25, 2019. Photo: Josefa Velasquez/THE CITY

For Melinda Katz, the fight to become Queens’ next district attorney has taken her from longtime favorite to post-primary underdog.

Wrangling over paper ballots looms as the Queens borough president plays catch-up with Democratic insurgent Tiffany Cabán in the unexpectedly extended race to become the county’s top prosecutor.

Katz, a career politician supported by the Queens Democratic machine, now has the odds stacked against her: With nearly 99 percent of precincts reporting as of Wednesday afternoon, Cabán maintains a 1,090 vote lead, according to the New York City Board of Elections.

As of Wednesday evening, some 6,300 absentee, affidavit and military ballots had yet to be counted, according to the Board of Elections. And the number of potential untallied votes could grow over the next few days as more mailed ballots trickle in, a BOE spokesperson said.

Still, Cabán, a 31-year old public defender, declared victory Tuesday night in the crowded race to replace the late, longtime DA Richard Brown.

Katz doubled down, telling supporters that her campaign would go into overtime to ensure every outstanding vote is counted. “There’s a wonderful thing about a democracy, you have to count every vote,” she said at her watch party in Forest Hills Tuesday night.

A Mathematical Hurdle

It’s unlikely, however, that Katz will catch up to Cabán, campaign experts say.

The outstanding votes are expected to be split among the seven candidates on Tuesday’s ballot — which includes City Councilmember Rory Lancman, who officially pulled out of the race a week earlier.

That makes for a “very difficult task to overcome” for the Katz campaign, said longtime local political strategist George Arzt.

Marty Connor, a former state senator and longtime election lawyer, said Cabán had a “pretty healthy margin.”

Tiffany Cabán celebrates after ending election night in the lead, on June 25, 2019.
Tiffany Cabán celebrates after ending election night in the lead, on June 25, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“What’s the probability you’re going to get like 80% of the absentee and affidavit?” Connor said of the Katz campaign. “Remember, a lot of the absentees went out before Rory Lancman dropped out, so he’ll get votes certainly.”

Meanwhile, Cabán’s campaign is in talks to hire Jerry Goldfeder, one of New York’s most prominent election lawyers, to handle the ballot count, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Goldfeder had worked on Lancman’s DA campaign before the Council member dropped out and backed Katz.

The Cabán campaign declined to comment about the potential hire.

Machine and Paper Politics

The machines used on Tuesday’s primary election will be checked at the Board of Election offices in Queens starting Thursday. Each machine has a pair of memory sticks, one of which will be removed. The information will be uploaded to get a certified vote count.

Before the paper ballots can get counted, a process that will begin next Wednesday, the Board of Elections will dispose of invalid ballots, some of which may have been mailed too late or filled out incorrectly.

Once the eligible paper ballots are identified, they will be opened at the Board of Elections facility in Queens by a Democratic and Republican board staff member in front of various campaign staff — including lawyers, who can argue over which votes should be counted.

The process could take hours — or days.

Katz on Tuesday night invoked the possibility of a recount. But a manual retallying of all the votes would only happen if the margin of victory is less than one-half of one percentage point after all the paper ballots are counted, said Valerie Vazquez, a BOE spokesperson.

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