Short Take: The 20 Vote Solution

It looked as if Tiffany Cabán pulled off her coup. The New York Times, bizarrely, endorsed her. Democratic presidential candidates endorsed her. She was that progressive district attorney candidate who would represent “transformative change,” her lack of experience, competency or much of anything beyond social justice platitudes and her identity as a “queer Latina” notwithstanding. Still, this is how democracy works, and if she got the votes, she wins.

The test, however, didn’t go nearly as well as hoped. Despite all the guns on her side, there were two overarching problems. The first was that a mere 11% of the potential Queens Democratic voters bothered to show up at the polls. Whether the problem was that 89% couldn’t be bothered, didn’t care or wanted nothing to do with any of the candidates is unclear. What is clear is that Cabán couldn’t get them out any more than her nearest competitor, Queens borough president Melinda Katz.

Still, a win is a win, even if the best Cabán could manage was about 39% of 11% of the eligible voters. But even as Cabán proclaimed herself the victor, Katz waited for the count of absentee and challenged ballots. And the tide turned.

Ms. Cabán had declared victory on primary night with a lead of about 1,100 votes, or 1.3 percentage points.

Her team acknowledged at the time that about 3,400 absentee ballots still had to be counted. But they said they felt comfortable claiming victory because the paper ballots would presumably be split among all seven candidates in the crowded field, making it hard for Ms. Katz to come up with enough votes to close the gap.

It’s not an unreasonable assumption, that Katz wouldn’t be able to close the gap under the circumstances. But assumptions don’t win elections.

Now, it appears she did: Ms. Katz won 1,901 of the paper ballots counted on Wednesday, compared with Ms. Cabán’s 751. That flipped last week’s result to put Ms. Katz just 20 votes over.

It’s not over just yet, as there will still be a hand recount of all votes, and with a lead of merely 20 votes, anything can happen. This is no great win for Katz, should her lead hold, and it’s no demonstration that the residents of Queens favor her transformative change either. On the Katz side, she was the party favorite, and the Dem machine in Queens worked for generations like a well-oiled machine.

On the Cabán side, her supporters mustered every activist around to the cause, and while some might have struggled given their unfamiliarity with the use of stamps to do something called “snail mail” to send in absentee ballots, it seems reasonable that they pulled in some grandmas who weren’t necessarily on board but would do it to appease their passionate and energized reformer grandchild.

As was the case when Cabán was in the lead, the same is true now that Katz has a 20 vote lead, despite the pathetic showing all around. So was team Cabán any more accepting of the “will of the people” than team Katz?

Ms. Katz had pulled ahead by winning about double the percentage of absentee ballots that she had of regular ballots — a result that Martin Connor, a former state senator who now works as an election lawyer, had thought highly improbable.

The activists, from the relatively sane to the outrageously paranoid, are screaming “conspiracy.” This can’t happen. The Dem machine has somehow rigged the system, thwarted the voices of the downtrodden for the benefit of the privileged. How, they don’t know and can’t say, but what else could it be?

It remains well within the scheme of possibilities that Tiffany Cabán will overcome on recount this 20 vote lead and emerge the victor. And a win is a win, whether it’s one vote or a million. That’s how elections work. But this is no mandate for transformative change. The vast majority of the eligible voters made a choice. They stayed home. Even though there will eventually be a winner of this election, both Katz and Cabán lost. The voters spoke by staying home.

6 thoughts on “Short Take: The 20 Vote Solution

  1. Stephen J.

    Random thought: Should the capacity of legislative officials to actually propose laws be limited by the amount of people who turned out in their election? Say, if only 10% actually voted at all, you can’t propose more than one bill a year, or something?

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