She immigrated to the United States the day after her 21st birthday, and she voted in every election, she told me, until she lost her house. When she was evicted, she went looking for the people she had voted for — her alderwoman and then-Mayor John Daniels — and found that her vote didn’t count for anything. After all the campaign promises she’d heard, all the trips to the polls, all the levers she’d pulled in the privacy of the voting booth, no one would help her. No one seemed to care. So quite understandably, she abandoned the system that had abandoned her and stopped voting altogether.
It’s an oft-repeated maxim that people who don’t vote shouldn’t get to complain about the results of elections. But after more than 40 years of votes that only produced aldermen who didn’t listen and mayors who couldn’t be bothered, it almost seems unfair to ask someone to continue going to the polls, only to risk disappointment one more time. Of course, if people don’t vote, it’s easy for a politician with a small but dedicated following to hijack an entire ward, leaving already marginalized voters feeling even more disenfranchised.
Ward 22 was, until recently, one of those wards. It has the second-lowest voter registration rate in New Haven (only Ward 1, which experiences a 25 percent turnover in population every year, has fewer registered voters), and shockingly low turnout rates for elections. New Haven has 30 wards, each with about 4,000 residents. The last Board of Aldermen election in Ward 22 was decided by 340 people; Reverend Drew King won his seat by only 19 votes. His opponent won back her seat in 2001 by a margin of only three votes, and the alderwoman she defeated sued her over the legality of a number of absentee ballots, which have historically played a key role in deciding Dixwell elections.
Clearly, higher voter turnout would help minimize the impact of this kind of electoral chicanery. It’s not only Dixwell residents who aren’t getting to the polls in Ward 22. Of the 170-odd students in Morse, Stiles, Silliman, Timothy Dwight and Swing Space who were registered to vote at the time, only 28 actually made it to the polls at the Edith Johnson Towers on 114 Bristol St. for the general election in November. Whether this was because of a perception that the election did not matter because Mayor John DeStefano and Reverend King were not being challenged by Republicans, or for some other reason, this is still extremely low turnout: less than 17 percent of registered students actually voted, accounting for only 8 percent of the votes cast, despite the fact that we are now almost one quarter of the ward’s population. A disturbing trend is appearing in Ward 22; we, students and New Haven residents alike, are quite literally giving up our right to vote.
Ward 22’s history of extremely tight races means that every ballot has the potential to decide an election. Under these circumstances, we should treat voting as an obligation; by expressing our opinions in the voting booth, we use local elections to make our visions for our neighborhood a reality as we can under almost no other circumstances. But even if our votes in Ward 22 counted less, we should still make the trip to the polls to remind people that it is important for them to speak up, whether they are concerned about speed bumps on Ashmun Street or the broader economic policies that contribute to persistent unemployment and underemployment in Dixwell. Being able to vote matters; with the Ward 22 polls only two blocks behind Payne-Whitney Gym and rides scheduled throughout election day, it should be easy to get to the polls and pull a lever, both to choose a nominee for president and Democratic Town Committee members, and as an exercise in democracy.
My friend is going back to the polls again on March 2. While her name appears nowhere on the ballot, we should vote for her and for what she represents: a real commitment to making our voices count.