News’ View: Nonpartisan elections for New Haven

You may not have noticed that today is Election Day in New Haven. We don’t blame you. After all, general elections in this city have become little more than coronations — a preview of Inauguration Day in January — and today’s is no different.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will undoubtedly win his quest for a ninth term today, and he will be able to do it without your vote or ours. He is set to eclipse Richard Lee and become the city’s longest serving elected mayor next year.

Many of us are registered to vote in New Haven and know that the challenges facing our city — its streets, its economy, its schools — cannot be overlooked. But there is little reason for us to vote, aside from a feeling of civic duty. The mayoral election is barely an afterthought and only a handful of aldermanic elections are seriously contested — a shame, considering the state of our city.

We will not be the only people staying away from the polls tomorrow. In the 2007 municipal election, about 13,000 voters — less than a quarter of those who were registered — showed up at the polls in New Haven. An even lower percentage of Yale students cast ballots in that contest.

There may be no solution to this problem. New Haven is a one-party town and has been for over 50 years. About 68 percent of New Haven voters are registered as Democrats and about 26 percent of voters are unaffiliated. The Democratic machine here is too powerful for its own good.

But instituting nonpartisan elections in municipal elections would be a benefit to New Haven and its residents. Though the Democratic Town Committee might still endorse, candidates would no longer be able to run on a party ticket, as the chosen ones. No one would be relagated to running as an Independent Democrat, as Angela Watley is today. There would not be elections like the one in Ward 22, that are purely rematches of the primary election.

New Haven would join a growing number of municipalities across the country, and a majority of cities, according to recent surveys, that are turning to nonpartisan elections in citywide and other local races. These elections, which are the standard in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Boston, wrench city politics from the party stronghold.

This would be a particular benefit in Ward 1, the so-called Yale Ward. Mike Jones ’11, who was endorsed in this space during the spring, secured victory in April’s Democratic Endorsement Vote before a quarter of his constituents, the class of 2013, arrived on campus. Though he was challenged fiercely last semester, he is unopposed on the ballot today and freshmen, unaffiliated and Republican voters never had a chance to declare their preference for a candidate in the race.

It is the same in a number of other wards around the city, where contested primaries led to uncontested races today. This system deprives a large portion of voters their right to choose their representatives in City Hall and leaves many more with no reason to go to the polls.

We do not doubt that Jones and DeStefano will serve our city well over the next two years. We just wish today’s election were a little more exciting.


  • Yale 08

    The reason cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Boston are able to enjoy so-called “nonpartisan elections” is because the political majorities for each of these cities are so much larger than the minorities; this means they can force their will no matter what. If anything, the “nonpartisan” designation is merely an exercise in hypocrisy of a level not often seen even in Washington, DC.

  • Yale 10

    It’s not hypocrisy, it’s just the realization that the traditional Democratic versus Republican divide is irrelevant when it comes to municipal politics. And yes, Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in New Haven just as they do in those other cities, but so what? Either we get a Board of Aldermen where 28 out of the 30 members are Democrats and one is a Green, or you get a Board of Aldermen with basically the same makeup. What is different is that everyone gets to participate in the process and the problematic force of the party machine is marginalized.

    Good editorial, YDN.

  • Yale ’08

    Except non-partisan municipal elections aren’t really non-partisan. In Atlanta, where I’m from, we’ve had a non-partisan Mayoral election featuring a fight over who is more of a Democrat. Most elections for the mayoralty evolve into the pro-Maynard Jackson machine Democrat and the anti-Maynard Jackson machine Democrat. Having party labels hasn’t prevented the Board of Alderman from becoming organized in a similar manner of pro and anti-DeStefano forces (witness tonight’s pro-DeStefano independent knocking off an anti-DeStefano Dem). How does dropping the labels change that? The Machine doesn’t stop being the machine when you take the D off, and races won’t start becoming competitive without the Scarlet R being afoot. If you want competitive races, you have to have people who are unhappy with the status quo and want to change it. New Haven elections are coronations because they seem, by and large, pleased with the DeStefano administration. The last time a heavyweight, Looney, challenged him in ’01 he got stomped. Publicly financed campaigns give people a chance, but there’s no demand. It may make the journalist’s job more fun to have a challenging race, but the voters make the decision.