Uncontested elections reveal failing democracy

First, the obvious: Today’s city election is not the most titillating ever. There is no dark horse candidate in Ward 1. The union-City Hall showdown in Ward 2 is no more. As for four-way mudslinging in Ward 22? Yesterday’s news.

There is, however, a silver lining to today’s ho-hum race. With petty politics out of the press, we can instead confront the real trouble with New Haven today: its democracy.

Only a handful of contested elections out of more than 30. A mayor about to ride with only nominal competition into his — eighth term! A Democratic Party almost as discouraging of dissent as Boss Tweed’s machine.

Although Democratic Town Chairwoman Susie Voigt and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. share some of the responsibility, the democratic crisis we sense in the city is no one’s fault — and the mayor has admirably reached out to his community through speaking tours and debates.

The problem, rather, is a direct consequence of complacency — and an antiquated political structure. As it stands, New Haven is divided into 30 political wards, and the Democratic Party houses a committee in each. To explain beyond this would be gratuitous: The red tape is so convoluted that it would — literally — take experts (or in one case last year, a state tribunal) to resolve even basic questions about endorsements and membership.

And since the Democratic Party dominates in elections — there is only one Republican on the Board of Aldermen — most city officials are essentially decided either behind closed doors or at scantily publicized September primary elections. New Haven should consider switching to something sensible: adopting the consolidated town council model or mollifying the biases of the established Democratic Party so more maverick competitors can have a shot.

As the city’s curious motto goes, “It All Happens Here.” All, that is, except the thriving democracy for which America’s “Model City” should be known.

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