Ranked-Choice Voting Gets Its Tryout in Queens, Despite the Snow

Some voters were delighted, some were confused, and same-day turnout was low

Ranked-choice voting got its trial run yesterday, after all.

In person voting for the special election in Queens Council District 24, which is the city’s first round of ranked choice voting, was almost thwarted by the more than 17 inches of snow that blanketed the city on February 1 and 2. But, even after some of the candidates called for in-person voting to be postponed, the election was held as scheduled with low day-of, in-person voter turnout. 

A snow-covered school bus outside the PS-117 J. Keld/Briarwood School polling location in Jamaica, Queens.

A snow-covered school bus outside the PS-117 J. Keld/Briarwood School polling location in Jamaica, Queens. (Photo by Tricia Crimmins for NYCityLens)

But according to the New York City Board of Elections, absentee and early voting turnout were both at over 2,000, with 600 returned absentee ballots as of February 2. The election featured eight candidates —Moumita Ahmed, Michael Earl Brown, James Gennero, Neeta Jain, Dilip Nath, Mujib U Rahman, Deepti Sharma, and Soma S Syed — running to be District 24’s council member. Results are expected February 15 at the earliest, to account for mail-in ballots still in transit.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to order each candidate by their preference — the candidate that gets more than 50 percent of votes wins. If no candidate receives that margin, second choice (and possibly third, fourth, and so on) votes are counted until a majority is achieved. 

Even though ranked choice voting seems fitting for a race that includes eight candidates, some voters said they felt confused about the switch to ranked-choice voting on the ballot in action.

“Most people did not understand it,” said Howard Schoenfield, 53, of East Meadow. Schoenfield voted against ranked-choice voting when it was on the ballot in 2019. When voting early and in-person this year at Queens College, he says he felt the ballot didn’t include proper instructions for ranked-choice voting. Thus, he isn’t confident that the system will deliver the best candidate for the district. 

But Rafael Shimunov, 42, who has lived in District 24 since he was two years old, says he was pleased by the instructions he encountered in advance of voting on election day. “We’ve been getting mailers from the city, there’s ads on Instagram and social media, there were trainings in multiple languages,” said Shimunov. He said he also shared information about how to vote in a ranked-choice system with his parents, who speak Russian, and some neighbors who speak Spanish. 

A campaign ad for Michael Earl Brown, one of the candidates running in the District 24 election, a few blocks from the Hillcrest Jewish Community Center polling place in Flushing.

A campaign ad for Michael Earl Brown, one of the candidates running in the District 24 election, a few blocks from the Hillcrest Jewish Community Center polling place in Flushing. (photo by Tricia Crimmins for NYCityLens)

Shimunov said that voter turnout was low at the polls on election day, at least in his polling place at PS MS 200; Shoenfield shared that he didn’t see any other voters at Queens College when he voted early, in advance of election day. “I was the only one there.”

And yet, Shimunov said that absentee and early voting turnout was great for the special election, despite the obstacles of inclement weather and COVID-19 rates. “This is one of the districts, even right now, among the highest COVID rates in the city and was ground zero for it in the first wave,” he said. 

Jamaica native Victor Yax, who also voted early, said he was confused in the voting booth—yet he “definitely” feels confident that ranked-choice will be efficient and beneficial for District 24. 

Shimunov agreed, saying he feels great about the potential of ranked-choice voting, which will be used in the upcoming NYC mayoral election. “As long as the candidates can get together—the ones that have the most similarities with each other—and kinda form slates and support each other.”

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