elections

Early Voting for Queens Borough Prez Race Starts Saturday Amid Virus Concerns

A sign directs voters toward the polling site at PS 70 in Astoria, Queens, on June 25, 2019.
A sign directs voters toward the polling site at PS 70 in Astoria, Queens, on June 25, 2019. Photo: Danny Laplaza /THE CITY

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Queens residents will be able to cast their votes early beginning Saturday to decide who will become the next borough president.

With anxieties about the coronavirus pandemic high, the city Board of Elections and several candidates for borough president are encouraging people to vote ahead of the March 24 special election to lessen the opportunity for large crowds at polling locations.

“This is an opportunity for Queens residents to avoid the highest turnout on the final day of voting,” said Councilmember Costa Constantinides, who is among the half-dozen candidates vying for the seat vacated by Melinda Katz, now the borough’s district attorney.

Candidates said they’re rolling with the race’s current changing landscape, and at least three of the six are pressing pause on get out the vote efforts in the field.

Constantinides announced Thursday his campaign was halting handing out fliers at subway stations and knocking on doors to speak to voters.

“Our organizers and volunteers go door-to-door or to mass transit hubs everyday, and we do not want to put the health of them or anyone else at risk at this time,” said Patrick Jordan, Constantinides’ campaign manager.

Former City Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley’s campaign also announced on Thursday it would suspend in-person canvassing.

“Our campaign is halting canvassing because of the coronavirus pandemic to protect the safety and health of all,” Crowley said. “We are following all guidelines from public health officials during this fast moving crisis.”

Councilmember Donovan Richards’ spokesperson also said they would halt canvassing.

Retired NYPD sergeant Anthony Miranda said he harbored concerns that his campaign volunteers might be endangering their health. They have reported fewer people were opening their doors.

“It’s presenting a lot of challenges right now to the known methods of collecting signatures,” Miranda said. “We are in a scary place right now in terms of just community health.”

Board Presses On

The city Board of Elections on Tuesday announced that all scheduled elections will proceed. It was not immediately clear how Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Thursday afternoon decision to ban most gatherings of over 500 people in the city might affect the BOE’s decisions.

Later Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio — in a news conference where he announced a state of emergency in the city — reiterated that elections would take place, but said all “door-to-door canvassing should be stopped immediately.”

“We are dealing with an unprecedented challenge but I think it is a signature of a stable democracy that elections happen when scheduled,” de Blasio said. “So we very much want that election to happen on time so long as we believe it can happen effectively.”

The borough president contenders are all Democrats: Councilmembers Constantinides and Donovan Richards, former Assistant District Attorney Jim Quinn, businessman Dao Yin, Crowley and Miranda.

Climate change, transit, housing, diversity and schools have emerged as key issues in the race, and candidates have split endorsements from prominent labor unions and community groups. Miranda, Richards, and Quinn have been vocal about bail reform and other criminal justice issues — an area where the borough president has limited sway.

At a Tuesday BOE Commissioner’s meeting, Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director, said officials would be “moving forward with other plans with respect to hand sanitizer and additional instructions at the poll sites.”

He added that there would be glass screen protectors on tablet devices used at polling places, to allow for more frequent disinfecting.

In addition to competing in the special election, candidates are also currently petitioning to appear on the ballot for a June 23 Democratic primary to complete the final year remaining in Katz’s term. They are required to collect 4,000 signatures from registered Democrats in Queens.

In light of the coronavirus threat, grassroots groups like Empire State Indivisible and the New Reformers are calling on Cuomo to reduce the petitioning requirements for upcoming state Legislature races and other openings.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the virus can live on surfaces for up to three days, which allows for our pens, clipboards and sheets to possibly become a carrier or be infected via exchangement,” a joint release read.

They argue that a lower bar to appear on the ballot would “ensure our democratic processes are robust and supportive of the healthy dialogue between voters and candidates, while at the same time limiting the risk of furthering the COVID-19 crisis in New York.”

Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment, but told a NY1 reporter on Wednesday he was not considering modifying absentee voter policy or other voting processes.

Low Turnout Already Expected

Prior to the virus’ spread to New York, campaign officials told THE CITY they were already apprehensive about potential low turnout for the special election.

In last year’s Public Advocate special election, turnout was roughly 9%. That contest cost taxpayers $23 million, according to the Board of Elections.

In its April 2019 financial plan, the city’s Office of Management and Budget set aside $75 million to fund early voting at 100 sites.

Political consultant George Arzt said he expected “overwhelming public anxiety” about the virus would lead more people to the polls early and blunt election day turnout.

“If you take a look at the decline in ridership on subways and buses and at diminishing attendance at public events, then voting in a special for borough president is not likely to cause many people to risk coming to the polls,” Arzt said. “This will be a very challenging [get out the vote] effort.”

Amy Torres, of the Chinese-American Planning Council, said she hoped the BOE would be “vigilant to mitigate any incidents of bias” that could result in voter intimidation at the polls.

“There is a dual concern for Asian-American New Yorkers. Not only are you at risk of exposure when you’re in crowded places, but you’re also at risk of xenophobic slurs,” Torres said.

Early voting will take place between Saturday and March 22 at 14 poll sites across the borough. The last day to request an absentee ballot is March 17.

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