On Tuesday afternoon, a newly emboldened Gregory Meeks stood outside the Queens Board of Elections, a coterie of politicians, activists, and hangers-on flanking him. He was there to rail against Tiffany Cabán’s campaign, to accuse her backers of trafficking in Trumpian falsehoods.
“I personally feel like a lot of the people making that noise, they don’t come from Queens—these folks do,” Meeks said, gesturing to the crowd behind him.
Much is on the line for Meeks, a veteran congressman and recently anointed leader of the Queens Democratic Party, the same organization once dominated by Joe Crowley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s original nemesis. On June 25, Cabán, a leftist insurgent who was virtually unknown just a few months ago, appeared to be on the verge of defeating Meeks’s pick to lead the Queens district attorney’s office, Melinda Katz.
Home to one of the largest DA’s offices in the nation, Queens had been the focus of unusual national attention since Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all backed Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender running on a platform to radically reshape criminal justice in New York City.
She declared victory, up by more than 1,000 votes with about 91,000 cast. Katz, the Queens borough president and unquestioned front-runner, refused to concede, waiting for the so-called paper ballots—affidavits and absentee ballots—to be tallied a week later. None of this was out of the ordinary: Candidates leading by such a margin usually declare victory, while those trailing by less than 1 percent will wait before issuing a formal concession.
What happened next was remarkable. Katz crushed Cabán among absentee voters to the point where she now leads by 16 votes. Among veteran watchers of New York politics, the disappearance of the deficit was startling, because the results from the absentee pool rarely differ so dramatically from those that vote on election day.
In the seven-way contest (one candidate dropped out before election day but remained on the ballot), Katz won about 56 percent of absentees, compared to Cabán’s paltry 22 percent. Rather than indicating some sort of Queens machine chicanery, that outcome suggested that Katz, a veteran of many campaigns, targeted the sort of voters—senior citizens in particular—who regularly vote without going to the polls.
With the margin so close, an automatic recount has been triggered. It will begin next week. (Katz, oddly enough, has declared victory, even though the slim margin requires a recount.) No recount on this scale in New York City has ever been attempted. It is expected to take several weeks, as teams at the Queens Board of Elections—both registered Democrats and Republicans, all with ties to the local political parties—manually count the votes from the paper ballots that are cast into machines.
Votes that the machine didn’t read because the bubble wasn’t filled in properly could still be counted because poll workers will scrutinize the intention of the voter: If they used a checkmark, an X, or didn’t bubble in dark enough. The recount is open to the public and will be observed by attorneys from both campaigns.
The Katz and Cabán campaigns each have arguments for why the recount will favor them.
“It’s a coin toss,” said Benjamin Rosenblatt, the president of Tidal Wave Strategies, a Queens-based consulting firm that has extensively analyzed the results of the DA’s race. “Usually, people who don’t fill out ballots correctly, sometimes they can be older voters. On the other hand, they could be first-time voters, younger voters, people who never filled out a ballot before.”
Because of New York’s archaic election laws, voters regularly show up at the polls unsure whether they are eligible to cast a ballot. Affidavits or provisional ballots are then assigned. The BOE typically ends up throwing many of these out, because the voters, for a variety of reasons, are not eligible for that particular election, whether it’s because they missed a deadline, joined the wrong party, or registered elsewhere.
At question now are 114 affidavits from registered Democrats in Queens who, for a number of reasons, may have filled out provisional ballots incorrectly. The Cabán campaign has fought hard for all these votes to be counted, citing case law that several election lawyers unaffiliated with the campaigns believe could hold in court. Their motive is also self-interested: Affidavit voters, newer to elections or newer to the borough, could be Cabán voters.
There is also relevant legislation that passed the state Assembly and Senate this year that would soften the standard for election officials to accept affidavit ballots. Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker and a Katz supporter, has yet to send the bill to Governor Cuomo’s desk to sign into law.
“Melinda Katz said on election night that every vote should be counted,” said Daniel Lumer, a Cabán spokesman. “We hope her campaign will join us in court to make sure that happens—and join our call on Governor Cuomo to quickly sign already-passed legislation that could prevent otherwise valid votes from being thrown out by technicalities.”
“I believe the votes should count,” added Ali Najmi, a Democratic election lawyer unaffiliated with either campaign. “The poll worker has a duty to make sure voters are assisted in filling out affidavits correctly.”
A hearing on the affidavits was scheduled for Tuesday in front of a Queens State Supreme Court judge who, like virtually judges in the Queens civil division, was elevated with the explicit blessing of the Queens Democratic Party boss. The case was adjourned, however, and will now be heard by a Brooklyn Republican judge at a later date, once the recount is complete.
Recounts can be extraordinarily expensive, and both the Katz and Cabán campaigns are running low on cash. In addition to a lawyer from the Democratic Socialists of America, a key early supporter, Cabán hired Jerry Goldfeder, a longtime Democratic election lawyer not known for working with hard-left candidates. The campaign has also added BerlinRosen, the powerhouse PR and consulting firm known for working with the very real estate developers Cabán and her allies repeatedly denounced.
Katz doesn’t need to pay a lawyer. As the chosen candidate of the Queens Democratic Party, Katz has an attorney, Frank Bolz, who works free of charge. Bolz is part of a trio of Long Island–based lawyers—all allies of Crowley and his predecessor—who have effectively controlled the Queens County legal system for more than 30 years.
This reality has fed grievances both legitimate and farcical. After affidavits were tossed, Shaun King, the criminal justice advocate and prominent social media personality, tweeted “LIES” and accused the BOE, without any actual evidence, of stealing the election for Katz. State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat, appeared to accuse Katz and the local Democrats of also stealing the election.
Nothing, so far, suggests any of this is true. Affidavit ballots are often discounted. The absentees weren’t forged. Democratic employees of the BOE, who do in fact owe their employment to party officials, have so far performed their jobs adequately. The recount commences without any foul play.
These accusations have drawn a well of outrage from the Katz campaign. “The Cabán campaign’s persistent efforts to portray a rigged electoral system have triggered an avalanche of conspiracy theories and created a mob mentality,” said Matthew Rey, Katz’s campaign adviser. “The increasing recklessness of the Cabán campaign is deeply troubling for a candidate running for the borough’s top law-enforcement job.”
At the same time, the past incompetence of the city BOE—purging voters in Brooklyn, mismanaging machines—has bred understandable skepticism of the process. There are reasons to question the agency’s administering of elections. A nonpartisan BOE would assuage a lot of these concerns, but that won’t happen without action from Cuomo and the state legislature.
Progressives rightfully skeptical of the Queens Democratic apparatus should also understand what they can and can’t do. The machine isn’t what it used to be—Katz turned out her votes through the help of organized labor and her own community ties, not the political clubs of yore. Political bosses can’t fix elections.
Instead, they pick judges, stuff the BOE with allies, and allow friends to get rich in Surrogate’s Court. All of this matters tremendously. All of it creates appearances of impropriety. But it’s not the same as rigging a recount.
Bolz, the aforementioned pro bono lawyer for Katz, is a reminder that while leftists in Queens have come very far in a year, they still haven’t seized every rein of power. Crowley’s defeat did not dislodge Bolz and his allies. Ocasio-Cortez, while taking on numerous national fights, has not attempted party-build back home.
Those who propelled Cabán and Ocasio-Cortez have much to celebrate. Politics in New York is in the midst of a profound realignment. Meanwhile, the ailing machine chugs on.