New Yorkers Brave Pandemic to Head to Primary Polls

Stickers reading “I Voted” rest on a voting machine set up inside Yonkers High School, which served as polling station Tuesday for the New York primary race. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(CN) — Over in New York City, Queens represented the worst-struck borough of the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, but that did not prevent voters from turning out in droves to participate in the democratic process for an important primary election.

“It’s way more voters today than expected,” Robert Moretti, an election coordinator at the PS 234 elementary school, said in an interview Tuesday outside the poll site.

That observation does not factor in surging participation via mail. 

New York City election coordinator Robert Moretti stands outside P.S. 234, a poll site in Queens, on Tuesday, June 23. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

The New York Board of Elections spokesman John Cochlan estimated 1.7 million absentee ballots had been requested, a startling number consider that the last presidential primary in April 2016 brought out some 1.97 million participants.

The proud “I VOTED!” sticker on Moretti’s chest shows which option the election worker chose.

“I purposely wanted to vote at the site because you vote by mail, it goes through a lot of hands,” Moretti said. “Then, it has to go to the Board of Elections, where it will go through a lot of hands. I vote here at the site, as soon as it goes through the scanner, my vote is guaranteed.”

For all of the concerns about mail-in voting — anxieties exploited by politicians such as President Donald Trump — a study published by Stanford University this May shows that the effects of that manner of casting ballots is politically neutral.

For Carol-Marie Labozzetta, an educator and musician, nothing could beat the feeling of participating in an election at the poll site.

“I did get the absentee ballot in the mail, and I contemplated that but there was nothing like a hands-on,” Labozzetta said. “And these people were just lovely, and they were just very clean, and it was a beautiful process.”

Heading to the room with voting booths in the basement of P.S. 234, a poll site in Queens, New York, stickers mark six feet apart for voters to keep a safe distance from each other on Tuesday. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

Inside the polling station in the school’s basement, floor markings reminded voters to keep social distance, and voters observed the requirement to wear masks. Sanitizer and face coverings were available to any upon request.

Though a fan of the in-person option, Labozzetta defended the right of others to choose their preferred method of voting.

“Do I agree with mail-in voting?” she asked. “Absolutely, and I believe in November if people need to vote absentee, absolutely. And that should not be suppressed at all.”

Unlike states like Oregon, New York does not have an explicit mail-in voting option, but the state expanded absentee voting by giving voters an option to obtain those ballots by citing fear of the virus.

Whatever method one votes, Labozzetta noted, now is a particularly consequential time to do so.

“We have a nation in crisis for health reasons political reasons, economic reasons, climate control reasons,” she said. “It’s more important than ever that we do get out and vote now.”

The pandemic also affected the race in another important way.

In every election, economic issues are extremely important, and that is especially true in a time of mass lockdowns and unemployment.

“My opinion is the most important is the economy,” said Mohinder Sen, an Astoria resident for more than 25 years. “This time is a very bad situation.”

This primary election represents a referendum on dramatic change. 

Representatives Eliot Engel and Carolyn Maloney — long-serving Democrats at the helm of the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees, respectively — are fighting for their political lives today after a combined total of more than half a century in office. Both are facing challengers from their left.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, acting chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, stands in 2019 with Rep. Jerrold Nadler. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

As chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, Maloney took over the seat vacated by the death of the late Congressman and civil rights legend Elijah Cummings last October. Representing New York’s 12th district in northern Queens, Maloney’s seat is coveted by Suraj Patel, a lawyer boasting about his association with former President Barack Obama and refusal to accept corporate money from political action committees.

Amid virus fears, Patel has used Maloney’s past questioning of the discredited link between vaccines and autism against her. Maloney renounced those views two years ago.  

But many Queens voters have a longstanding affinity for incumbent Maloney, who assumed office in 1993.

“I love Carolyn Maloney,” Labozzetta said in her interview. “I decided that she needs to stay. She needs to have to have a voice.”

Of the two Democrats, Engel faces the stiffer challenge with Jamaal Bowman, a longtime middle school principal commonly likened to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a person of color pushing the political establishment to its left. Unlike most insurgent candidates, Bowman’s path to mainstream support for New York’s 18th Congressional District occurred at warp speed with a New York Times endorsement this month.

“Certainly, Engel is facing a stiffer challenge that he has ever has before,” Daniel DiSalvo, a professor at City University of New York, commented in a phone interview.

Also defending her seat in the 14th district of the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez is widely expected to hold her office from a three-candidate challenge. Thought to be leading the pack, CNBC contributor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera made the rounds on Wall Street to try to compete with an incumbent who raised nearly five times the haul through unprecedented grassroots organizing.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., hugs Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., during an Oct. 19, 2019, campaign rally in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Right next door in the 15th District, a pro-Trump Democrat with a history of anti-gay and anti-abortion remarks has the lead.

The seat had been occupied since 1990 by Representative Jose Serrano, whose Parkinson’s diagnosis pulled him out of contention this year, leaving Democrats anxious about his potential successor, New York City Councilman Rubén Díaz Sr.

Díaz has characterized the City Council as a body “controlled by the homosexual community” and compared abortion to the Holocaust. When he held a rally against same-sex marriage, his granddaughter organized a counterrally supporting LGBT rights across the street.

“Partly the issue there is there’s so many candidates in the primary and Rubén Díaz obviously has the advantage of being a longtime politician in the Bronx, having held various offices in the past,” DiSalvo noted, adding that the councilman “is very well known, especially to seniors, who are more socially conservative and potentially closer to him on some of the controversial statements.”

As for the presidential primary, New Yorkers nearly were denied their choice after election authorities canceled the contest following Sanders’ withdrawal from the race as Joe Biden’s only remaining challenger. New York election authorities justified their decision on the coronavirus pandemic. 

When dropping out of the race, Sanders pointedly added that he would continue to add delegates to change the Democratic party’s platform, and he joined a successful lawsuit filed by fellow candidate Andrew Yang to add their names back on the ballot. The candidates won their challenge both in the trial court and on appeal. 

Due to the high number of absentee ballots, the final results of the various races could be a matter of weeks.


Read Courthouse News’ preview coverage of the New York primary race here, and look out for our ongoing coverage of the results of key races.

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