Many students can utter the words “For God, for country, and for Yale” with certainty. But some may be reluctant to add, “for Connecticut.”
Even if all voters registered in Ward 1 — which includes Old Campus and all residential colleges except Timothy Dwight, Silliman, Morse and Ezra Stiles — cast their ballots today, more than 1,500 eligible students will have chosen not to vote in the local and state elections, according to statistics provided by Associate Yale College Dean John Meeske and New Haven Registrar Sharon Ferrucci. For many students, the decision is less whether to vote and more about whether to register at home or in Connecticut, where participation in fierce aldermanic campaigns and an upcoming gubernatorial election often come at the expense of a student’s impact in his or her state of origin.
More than two dozen Yalies with varying degrees of political involvement said their registration choices were influenced by factors including personal connection with home politics, a negative perception of local elections and persuasion by candidates who knock on their doors.
“The registration process is really fast,” said Nick Seaver ’07, volunteer coordinator of Rebecca Livengood ’07’s aldermanic campaign, said. “I tell people ‘I can fill out your full registration form in 30 seconds and then you can decide if you want to sign it or not’.”
Although such intense efforts by candidates to register voters have been relatively successful — in Ward 1, the Livengood and Nick Shalek ’05 campaigns registered a combined 879 students — campaign workers said many students, even if sold on the issues, were set on voting at home.
Livengood, the current Ward 1 alderwoman, and Shalek agreed that they made extra efforts this year to get out the Yalie vote, even in the face of disinterest or other priorities. Shalek, a former Yale hockey captain, emphasized reaching out to sports teams and student groups whose members may not have been previously engaged in New Haven politics. He said he is hopeful that efforts led to a larger understanding of local politics.
“We targeted a cappella groups, fraternities, cultural organizations, and went through almost every route we could to reach people, with the last month filled mostly with knocking on doors and talking to as many people as we could,” Shalek said. “I feel this is good, because students at Yale traditionally haven’t focused on local issues beyond a small section of the population I consider unrepresentative of what Yale students really think.”
Noah Kazis ’09, who knocked on hundreds of doors for the Livengood campaign, said at least 50 percent of students he encountered who planned to vote would vote at home.
“I stayed registered in Oregon because I’m engaged in the politics there and feel like the issues here really don’t have relevance to the lives of most students,” Rachel Hansen ’09 said.
Sam Steinbock ’09, who lives in Ohio and witnessed his state’s close call in the presidential election, said he plans to remain a registered voter at home in order to make a difference in the swing state.
“It seems like Connecticut is pretty Democratic, and so I’d rather vote in Ohio where it matters more, where there is more potential to change things,” Steinbock said. “I think it’s kind of unfortunate that our electoral system works in this way, but my state’s a swing state.”
But Robert Smuts ’01, deputy chief of staff for New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said Yale students have an important presence in local elections.
“A significant number of wards in the city have large Yale student populations,” he said. ” Volunteers who have a big impact in other wards tend to get mobilized especially on various progressive causes: economic justice, environmental issues, and open and transparent government.”
But according to statistics provided by Michael Kozik of the Connecticut Secretary of State’s Office, Yale students encompass approximately 0.13 percent of the total state vote during each election, and only 3.7 percent of the total New Haven vote.
Even if Yalies may not make a huge difference in local elections, some students said that as Connecticut residents for nine months out of 12 each year, they see New Haven politics as most relevant to their lives.
“I feel like as a Yale student, I should have a voice in who is representing us,” Wells O’Byrne ’07 said. “And since Nick and Rebecca have been so actively campaigning on campus, I feel more knowledgeable about this campaign than in my own state.”
Robert Nelb ’08, a Pennsylvania native who spent his summer in New Haven engaged in community service, said he looks forward to voting in Connecticut during today’s election.
“I think New Haven certainly has a unique political structure where it almost seems like 100 percent Democratic, but regardless, I think that people need to vote here in order to understand the important issues New Haven is facing,” he said.
But for Peter Bull ’08, who voted via absentee ballot in his home state of Massachusetts, active campaigning on campus has not convinced him to switch his registration.
“For some reason, I doubt that anything the alderman does is actually going to have any sort of effect on my life,” he said.
As part of the increased registration effort this year, several students said they were promised “the best of both worlds,” as O’Byrne said. Several students approached by Shalek said he promised that his campaign would unregister them in Connecticut following today’s election so that they would be able to vote in next year’s election at home.
But some voters said they were confused by such offers due to unfamiliarity with election law. In at least one instance, a student unknowingly canceled her right to vote at home after agreeing to register in Connecticut, as it is a felony to vote in more than one state.
Confusion surrounding the choice of where to vote is not unique to Yale. But since Yalies often choose to run in local elections and get involved in local politics, students have an increased incentive to vote for their peers in New Haven.
“It’s kind of neat to be rooting for [Livengood] after having lived so near her for the past two years,” Ashley Nyquist ’07, Livengood’s peer in Saybrook, said.
Students on other campuses said they are often torn between voting at home and voting at school, but may not be as tied to candidates in their universities’ districts.
John Jernigan, a Harvard University senior and the editor of the Harvard Political Monthly, said the scale is tipped significantly in favor of those who stay registered at home, and estimated that only 30 percent of active Harvard voters register in Massachusetts.
“I would say in general students are not engaged in local politics at the Cambridge level,” he said. “There are a bunch of organizations on campus who have done voter registration … but the majority of the time, students here register at home.”
At Columbia University, the urban environment entices slightly more voters to register in New York rather than their home state, but registration is still not high among students, Columbia junior and Columbia Political Review editor Matthew Christiansen said.
Christiansen added that because so many students at Columbia are from New York, they never face the question of where to register.
The 16 percent of Yalies hailing from Connecticut find themselves in the same position.
Liam Andrew ’08 said his perspective as a New Haven native allows him to see both sides of the conflict faced by students each fall, and the importance of exploring local issues.
“I don’t know how important Yale students are to elections here, because they’re just a little … part of New Haven,” he said. “But students don’t really participate in New Haven as much as maybe they should, not as much as the city would like them to.”