The problem with special elections is that they attract a pathetic level of turnout. The City Council has two vacancies now and three more looming, with special elections slated for December, February and (most likely) March. Here’s a look at who’s running.
The Christmas season is a special one in New York City. The smell of pine as you pass sidewalk tree-sellers. Carolers and cookie making. The big tree at Rockefeller Center. This year, late December will be especially, well, special. Why? The special election in District 12 of course.
In fact, the December 22 election to fill the Bronx seat vacated when Andrew King was expelled from the City Council in October ushers in its own very special season of elections at weird times, when a very small number of voters will decide who gets the significant plum of a seat on the New York City Council, which comes with a $148,500-a-year salary, substantial land-use and legislative power, control of millions in discretionary funds and a very snazzy lapel pin.
In addition to King’s former district, which covers the northeast Bronx, the Council has another vacancy in District 24 in eastern Queens, where Rory Lancman resigned to take a job in the Cuomo administration. Mayor Bill de Blasio has called a special election there for Feb. 2, 2021.
Also looming in the New Year are elections for three other seats. Ritchie Torres in District 15 (central Bronx) has been elected to Congress. Donovan Richards of District 31 (southeast Queens) won the race –itself a special election—to be Queens borough president. Bronx District 11 incumbent Andrew Cohen just got himself elected judge. Assuming all three men resign at the end of the calendar year, the special election would take place in mid-March. The New York City charter requires an election within 80 days of the vacancy.
Special elections are nothing new: There have been four in the past two years, for two Council seats, the public advocate and Queens BP. Nine of the 49 people sitting on the Council right now were first elected by special election. Letitia James, now perhaps the most powerful woman in New York state as attorney general, began her rise with a special election win after her predecessor was assassinated.
The problem special elections solve is a gap in representation. Rafael Espinal resigned from the City Council last January and, because of the pandemic, a special election for his seat was cancelled. It was only filled on Nov. 3. That means the residents of the 37th district in Bushwick, Ocean Hill and East New York lacked any formal voice in the tense negotiations around the fiscal 2021 budget and other matters that came before the Council in the intervening nine months.
The problem with special elections is that they attract a pathetic level of turnout. Some 92,000 voters live in Council District 17 in the Bronx. When a special election was held there in February 2016 to fill a vacancy, only 3,719 people came out to vote. While turnout is rarely impressive in New York City, the same district had seen nearly 12,000 people come out in the previous regular election. The winner of a low-turnout special election, of course, enjoys just as much of the advantage of incumbency as someone who garnered a much larger number of votes in a regular election.
“They are just as legitimate as any other election,” says Jerry Goldfeder, a veteran election lawyer and commentator on the mechanics of voting. “Turnout in our mayoral elections has sometimes been quite low. That doesn’t mean you should abolish elections. On the contrary, it means candidates and voting-rights organizations need to double down to encourage people to come out and vote.”
On that score, Goldfeder sees an opportunity in the slew of races coming in early 2021. “The fact that we have three special elections on the same day for Council seats from two boroughs should prompt the Campaign Finance Board and Voter Assistance Commission to ramp up their educational efforts to get people to the polls.”
Certainly for the December race, and possibly for the ones in February and March, the COVID-19 lockdown could depress turnout even further. And the March races create a different problem: People will be running in the special election in those three districts while also petitioning to get on the ballot for the June primary. (The special elections will seat people to finish the current term, which ends December 31, 2021, while the regular 2021 elections will elect someone to serve from Jan. 1, 2022 to the end of 2025.)
That will be “confusing to the voters and really makes no sense,” Goldfeder says. “The timeline needs to be adjusted.”
Another quirk: The new system of ranked-choice voting will apply to the four 2021 races, but not the one in late December.
Here’s what we know so far about the cast and chronology for the upcoming season of special elections. (Note that special elections are nonpartisan affairs, where no one call call herself a Democrat or Republican, so candidates adopt self-created party names):
Covers: The Bronx neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Norwood, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield and Woodlawn. [Map]
Incumbent: Andrew Cohen, who was elected on Nov. 3 to a judgeship.
Timing: Likely mid-March. Mayor de Blasio will set the date after Cohen resigns from the Council. The city charter requires an election within 80 days of the vacancy.
Covers: The Bronx neighborhoods of Eastchester, Baychester, Co-op City and Williamsbridge. [Map]
Incumbent: Vacant. Andrew King was expelled from the Council in October.
Timing: Dec. 22, 2020
Pamela Hamilton-Johnson (Social Change)
Neville Mitchell (Bronx 12 Matters)
Kevin Riley (Justice & Unity)
Covers: The Bronx neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Fordham, Mount Hope, Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont, West Farms, Van Nest, Allerton and Olinville. [Map]
Incumbent: Ritchie Torres, who was elected to Congress on Nov. 3.
Timing: Likely mid-March. Mayor de Blasio will set the date after Torres resigns from the Council. The city charter requires an election within 80 days of the vacancy.
Covers: The Queens neighborhoods of Kew Gardens Hills, Briarwood, Utopia and Pomonok. [Map]
Incumbent: Vacant. Rory Lancman resigned in early November to join the Cuomo administration.
Timing: Feb. 2, 2021
Covers: The Queens neighborhoods of Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale and Springfield Gardens [Map]
Incumbent: Donovan Richards, who was elected Queens borough president on Nov. 3.
Timing: Likely mid-March. Mayor de Blasio will set the date after Richards resigns from the Council. The city charter requires an election within 80 days of the vacancy.
If you have additional information about any of these candidates, please contact City Limits.