Across Queens, History Plays Out One Vote at a Time

Queens Borough President Candidate Councilmember Donovan Richards fills out his ballot in the 2020 general election in Cambria Heights with his son. Photo by Clarissa Sosin

Poll site coordinator Jerome L. Taylor showed up to work early to prepare for history. 

It was 5 a.m. and already there were a handful of people waiting outside of the Adrien Block I.S. 25 school in Flushing. They stood patiently while Taylor and his team got ready for the long day ahead of them. At 6 a.m., when Taylor opened the door, the line of voters had grown and snaked down the block. They started to enter. 

A while later, Taylor glanced at his phone. He was shocked. He hadn’t realized that in just over an hour, they’d cycled the line of voters in and out. It had gone so smoothly, he said, proud of the way they’d handled the rush.  

Poll workers, candidates, campaign teams and volunteers worked in overdrive on Tuesday as voters all over Queens lined up at poll sites to cast their ballots to elect a U.S. president, Queens Borough President, and other elected officials in what is one of the most contentious and largely participated in general elections in history. 

Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting decimated economy, and after protests and unrest this past spring over police reform, the election is a referendum on the country’s leadership and vision for the future. It is a turning point that will be decided in the polls by the people. 

No matter the outcome of the presidential election, the story played out at unassuming election sites throughout the borough from before the sun rose until the polls closed. 

“I thought it was going to be really crazy,” said Taylor.

He gave some of the credit to the new system made up of iPads and fast passes that voters scan with their info. When he started as a poll worker, voters still cast their ballot using a lever. 

“All you have to do is point and look and keep moving. It’s beautiful,” said Taylor. 

Shivering on the street corner outside of the school building, City Council Candidate Adriana Aviles watched the line move. A volunteer for incumbent Congresswoman Grace Meng’s campaign, she’d arrived at 6 a.m. to hand out fliers. From her corner perch, she saw the line shrink steadily. After the morning rush was over, a steady stream of hopeful voters continued to walk by her to go inside. 

City Council Candidate Adriana Aviles handing out fliers on Election Day for Congresswoman Grace Meng. Photo by Clarissa Sosin

She was 100 feet from the door, or so she hoped, to comply with the election laws. She’d been told to think about it like she had to stand the length of one base to another on a baseball field. 

Aviles was there with two goals: mobilize the community to get Meng re-elected and get the lay of the land for her upcoming city council campaign to replace City Councilmember Paul Vallone (D-Auburndale, Bay Terrace, Bayside, Beechhurst, College Point, Douglaston, Flushing, Little Neck, Malba, Whitestone) in District 19. 

“I’ve never done this before and I think it’s exciting to get in the middle of all this,” she said. “And I like to see what’s in store for me next year as well.”

People are tired, and cold, Aviles said about the voters passing her by. But they are also talkative. 

“I’ve had long conversations already this morning, oh my goodness,” she said. “Trump and the election and everything that’s going on. It’s so interesting! I just love listening to them!”

It’s not just the presidential election that she’s waiting for the results on. She can’t wait to see the outcome of the Queens Borough President race as well.

Democratic Candidate and City Councilmember Donovan Richards (D-Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens) will win, she said, but the question is by how much. 

Her district likes the police, they like public safety, she said, and yet he voted to defund the NYPD. 

“That’s a big thing in Queens, public safety,” she said. 

How many votes did Queens County Republican Chairwoman Joann Ariola swipe from him for that, she wondered out loud. 

A similar scene played out an hour later at a school in Cambria Heights.

Like I.S. 25, the Cambria Heights School P.S. 176 had their morning rush when they opened. The line management clerks had been busy then, shepherding the voters in and out. But now they stood at the entrance to the room with the machines, idle yet eager. 

“We never got a break,” one clerk said to the other about the early voting that had taken place just days earlier. 

A couple minutes later there was a cheer from inside the room commandeered for the election. 

“First time voter!” someone yelled as people clapped.

Then, flanked by his wife, four year old son, and an aide, City Councilmember and Queens Borough Candidate Donavan Richards walked into the school. 

Richards entered the room to a murmur of recognition. He fist bumped the poll worker at the information desk and made the rounds to say hello everyone else. His son Donovan, or “D3,” trailed behind him, a mask with baseballs on it covering his mouth and nose. 

They stopped briefly to pose for a photo. Despite the please of his parents, little D3 refused to stand still. Instead, he did jumping jacks.

Richards walked up to a privacy booth, his son at this side. 

“Who’s name is that?” he asked his son, showing him the ballot

“Donovan Richards!” the boy chimed. 

Richards filled in the bubbles then together they fed the ballot into the machine. 

“I’m not gonna lie, there’s a lot of anxiety about what will happen tonight,” he said afterward about the presidential election. 

But the outcome of the presidential election won’t change how he approaches running the Queens. As borough president, he’ll fight for resources for the borough, he said. 

“We’re going to pinch every corner –– the governor, the mayor, the future president,” he said. “Queens is the future. Manhattan is not the future, Brooklyn is not the future, Staten Island is not the future. Queens is the future.” 

Tension over who will run the country for the next four years was in the air in Astoria as well, said Queens County Democratic Party County Committee Member Maria Kaufer. 

Maria Kaufer and her husband outside of P.S. 70 in Astoria for the Nov. 3, 2020 elections. Photo courtesy of Maria Kaufer

Kaufer, a board member of the New Reformers, spent a chunk of her day standing outside of P.S. 70 in Astoria. 

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Kaufer and her husband stood the obligatory 100 feet from the entrance of the school. They were there on behalf of the Working Families Party to convince voters to vote for Biden on their ballot line. 

“People that were already inclined to vote for Biden Harris, we’re just trying to encourage them to vote more progressive,” she said.

For the most part, people were receptive. Some had already done their research about the threshold for third parties to receive an automatic ballot line in future elections and were planning to vote on the Working Families Party line.

But not everyone. 

Her husband bore the brunt of the naysayers, she said. 

“For some reason he had more negative interactions,” she said laughing nervously. 

One man walked by them swearing under his breath, she said. Another man who was doing maintenance work on the block was, as she put it, “upset that we were there.”

But it was worth standing in the cold. 

By the end, they’d passed out around 300 pieces of literature she said. Some people were receptive to their message or were grateful for the reminder. A few even thanked them which makes the whole experience worth the trouble, she said.

“Then you don’t mind your tired feet and your aching back,” she said. 

The tension between voters on different sides of the aisle wasn’t nearly as evident at the St. Albans School P.S. 36 in St. Albans when State Senator Leroy Comrie (D-Briarwood, Cambria Heights, Hollis, Hollis Hills, Hillcrest, Jamaica, Jamaica Estates, Jamaica Hills, Kew Gardens, Laurelton, Queens Village, Rosedale, South Jamaica, Springfield Gardens, St. Albans) arrived.

A lone candidate on the ballot, Comrie wasn’t worried about winning his seat. There were no volunteers standing outside flyering in his name. 

Instead, Comrie was making the rounds to poll sites in his district to check in with the workers and see if there were any issues. 

And so far at this site, there were no complaints. 

“The last couple of schools actually complained,” he said. “So I put them down in my notepad.”

Walking in a giant loop, Comrie greeted everyone working and most of the voters too. Some knew him by name and asked after his family, others he introduced himself too. 

One name kept coming up: Archie Spigner. 

Spigner, a former councilmember and beloved figurehead in the community, died on Sunday. Everyone wanted to know when the funeral would be. 

“A lot of people put a lot of faith in him,” he said about his former boss. “And we elected him in office consistently.”

There were far fewer voters out than in 2008, he remarked while giving the room one last survey. He had to head out to get on a Zoom call to discuss next steps for after the vote.

On Monday afternoon, the day before election day, Comrie had said he was worried about voter turnout. The polls were saying Biden was going to win and he didn’t want people to get complacent, he said. 

But no matter what happens, no matter who wins, whether Biden or Trump, the next president needs to bring the country together he said.

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