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A Brief Guide to the City Council Specials Kicking Off the 2021 Election Cycle and Implementation of Ranked-Choice Voting

4 guide upcoming city

Voters voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York City’s first ranked-choice election is underway in Queens. The crowded and competitive special election to replace former City Council Member Rory Lancman, who resigned for a position in the Cuomo administration, saw early voting begin this past Saturday. It will run through January 31, followed by election day on February 2.

While it is the city’s first election using ranked-choice voting, which took effect this year after being approved by voters in 2019 and only applies to special and party primary elections for city government positions, it is the second in a wave of City Council special elections happening ahead of the city’s regularly-scheduled 2021 election cycle, which will see primaries in June and a fall general election culminating on November 2.

Previously, Bronx Council Member Andy King was expelled for repeated ethics violations and a special election to replace him was held in December. That District 12 election saw Kevin Riley emerged victorious with 68% of the vote, beating Pamela Hamilton-Johnson (24%) and Neville Mitchell (3.2%).

Along with Lancman, several other City Council members — Andrew Cohen, Ritchie Torres, and Donovan Richards — have left their posts for other government offices in recent weeks, necessitating three other special elections, together effectively kicking off the 2021 city election cycle.

However, Riley and whoever wins the early 2021 special elections will still have to run again in the June primary and fall general election to serve the next full term. In the interim, they will be able to exercise the powers that come with the job of City Council member, including decisions affecting land use, legislation, and the city budget, while providing constituent services, for at least the remainder of 2021. Because of redistricting from the 2020 Census, all candidates will run for two-year terms instead of four-year terms. Nevertheless, winners of these special elections could end up serving through 2029 until term limits would mandate their departure from office. 

The ongoing Council District 24 special election in eastern Queens will be followed by one in Council District 31 in southeast Queens, the seat vacated by newly-elected Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. That special election will include early voting February 13-21 and election day on February 23. In Council District 15 in the central and south Bronx, Ritchie Torres who was elected to Congress, and in District 11 in the northwest Bronx, Andrew Cohen left his seat to become a judge — both districts will fill their vacancies via early voting March 13-21 and election day March 23. 

These initial runs for ranked-choice voting will help provide insights into the new voting system’s strengths and weaknesses ahead of the June primaries. Ranked-choice voting in New York City -- again, only for special and primary elections -- allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50% of first-place votes, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated and the voters who chose that candidate as their top choice have their votes redistributed to their second choice candidate. The process of elimination continues, at some point one candidate hits over 50% and becomes the winner.

Special elections for New York City government positions are non-partisan, meaning there are no traditional political parties used and each candidate must create a new party name for their ballot line and collect eligible voter signatures to secure the ballot spot.

Below is a breakdown of the four ongoing and upcoming City Council special elections, including candidate information, important dates, and district data. 

City Council District 11
Is in the northwest Bronx, covering neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Norwood, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield, and Woodlawn. (Map

Election Day: March 23, 2021

Early voting: March 13-21

The seat became vacant after Andrew Cohen was elected to a judgeship and subsequently resigned.

Candidates: Mino Lora, educator, nonprofit founder, and activist; Jessica Haller, climate activist and tech entrepreneur; Eric Dinowitz, teacher and Democratic district leader; Dan Padernacht, attorney and Chair of Bronx Community Board 8; and Carlton Berkley, retired NYPD detective. 

2010 Census district demographics: 39.4% Hispanic, 32.8% White, 18.5% Black, 6.7% Asian-American 

Housing: 72% renter-occupied, 28% owner-occupied

2013 primary election results: Cohen: 68.4%, Clifford Stanton: 31.6%

2017 primary election results: Cohen uncontested

City Council District 15
Is in the central Bronx, covering neighborhoods including Fordham, Mount Hope, Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont, West Farms, Van Nest, Allerton, and Olinville. (Map)

Election Day: March 23, 2021

Early voting: March 13-21

The seat became vacant after Ritchie Torres was elected to Congress and subsequently resigned from the Council.

Candidates: Ischia Bravo, community advocate and executive director for the Bronx Democratic County Committee; Elisa Crespo, activist and education liaison at the Bronx Borough President's office; Oswald Feliz, tenant lawyer and adjunct professor at Hostos Community College; Latchmi Gopal, activist and civic leader; John Sanchez, district manager for Bronx Community Board 6; and Altagracia Soldevilla, community activist. 

2010 Census district demographics: 66.3% Hispanic, 24.9% Black, 4.9% White, 2.3% Asian-American 

Housing: 92% renter-occupied, 8% owner-occupied

2013 primary election results: Torres: 36.1%, Joel Rivera: 21.3%, Cynthia Thompkins: 20.9%, Albert Alvarez: 9%, Raquel Batista: 7.4%, Joel Bauza: 5.5%

2017 primary election results: Torres uncontested

City Council District 24
Is in eastern Queens, covering neighborhoods including Kew Gardens Hills, Pomonok, Eastchester, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood, Parkway Village, Jamaica Hills, and Jamaica. (Map)

Key Dates
Early voting: January 23-31 - Early voting poll site list: PDF
Election Day: February 2 - Election Day poll site list: PDF

The seat became vacant in November when Rory Lancman stepped down for a position in Governor Cuomo’s administration. 

Candidates on the ballot and their ballot lines:
Moumita Ahmed (Mo For The People), a progressive community organizer; Michael Brown (United Citizens), a real estate agent; James Gennaro (Queens Strong), the former City Councilmember for District 24, who served three terms from 2002 to 2013, and is now running for his old seat after working in the Cuomo administration for several years; Neeta Jain (Community First), a Democratic district leader and practicing psychologist; Dilip Nath (Your Voice Matters), a higher education executive and president of the New American Voters Association; Mujib Rahman (Unity), a community activist; Deepti Sharma, a small business owner and advocate; and Soma Syed (Soma for Queens), a practicing attorney and Queens County Women’s Bar Association president.  

2010 Census district demographics: 33.2% White, 28.9% Asian, 21.8% Hispanic, 11.7% Black

Housing: 55.7% renter-occupied, 44.3% owner-occupied

2013 primary election results: Lancman: 61.7%, Andrea Veras: 17.5%, Mujib Rahman: 17%

2017 primary election results: Lancman: 62.6%, Mohammad Rahman: 36.8%

City Council District District 31
Is in southeast Queens, covering neighborhoods including Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale, and Springfield Gardens. (Map)

Election Day: February 23, 2021

Early voting: February 13-21, 2021

The seat became vacant after Donovan Richards was elected Queens Borough President and subsequently stepped down. 

Candidates on the ballot:
LaToya Benjamin (The Time Is Now), economic director for State Senator James Sanders Jr.; Selvena Brooks-Powers (Powers 4 Queens), communications professional; Latanya Collins (Collins 4 Queens), educator and public servant; Sherwyn James (Time for Change), ordained minister and Democratic district leader; Nicole Lee (Lee For Jobs 31), entrepreneur and special needs advocate; Nancy Martinez (Rockaway United), healthcare training school founder and community leader; Pesach Osina (Community Unity), Jewish community leader; Shawn Rux (Rux For Us), assistant school superintendent; and Manny Silva (People Powered), Richards’ former chief of staff. 

2010 Census district demographics: 68.1% Black, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.7% White, 1.9% Asian American 

Housing: 52.4% renter-occupied, 47.6% owner-occupied

2013 primary election results: Richard: 51.5%, Michael Duncan: 35.8%, Ricardo Brown: 12.5%

2017 primary election results: Richards uncontested

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

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