In 2005, over 800 Ward 1 residents — most of them students — voted in the aldermanic election that put Nick Shalek ’05 into office. Last Tuesday, when Rachel Plattus ’09 officially became part of the Board of Aldermen, turnout was under 120.
Although campus political groups attempted to mobilize students to vote in the local races, the numbers indicate that the vast majority of students stayed clear of polling places — particularly in this uncontested race.
“If you only have one candidate, that person is going to win, and if you don’t care about other races, then there’s no reason to go out and vote,” Alex Walker ’08 said. “The election is about a choice, and if you don’t have a choice, what point is there?”
Paul Selker ’08, a member of the Yale Political Union’s Party of the Left, said Plattus’ campaign should not be blamed for the lack of student traffic at the polls.
“Nothing can engage the community like a contested election,” Selker said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a manifestation of some sort of new apathy. It’s a manifestation of the fact that there weren’t two large election machines working to turn out people.”
Joe Charlet ’09, a member of the Independent Party of the YPU, said the broader dynamic of the Yale-New Haven relationship informs the low voter turnout numbers.
Charlet said many Yale students think of the University as “an island in New Haven,” and in order to counteract this perception, he said, the burden of action belongs to the University and the connection it fosters between its students and the city.
“It seems to me that Yalies aren’t interested in [political issues] one way or another, because they don’t think that they directly affect us, and we don’t reach outside the bubble except in small doses,” Charlet said. “The situation could be better if Yale could foster more of an interest, [or] give us more of a reason to reach out.”
But Plattus said nothing is more relevant than the city’s political choices.
“I think that there are decisions made every single day by city government and by University administration that affect Yale students,” Plattus said. “And not just because they directly affect Yale students, but because they affect Yale workers … When we recognize that we are a part of that community, it becomes clear that it is absolutely right for us to vote.”
Still, several Yalies said that apart from questions of safety and security, the issues affecting New Haven do not necessarily apply to their lives as college students.
Tim Karpowitz ’09 said regardless of whether the election is close or uncontested, the final outcome would most likely have no impact on his life at Yale.
“Politics exist to address issues and problems in people’s lives,” Karpowitz said. “I’m just a Yale student. I just do my academic thing, and I haven’t been bothered yet.”
But Karpowitz voted in 2005.
That year, Shalek came into his suite in Lanman-Wright Hall and spent a few minutes playing the video game Half-Life 2 with Karpowitz. Because of that “personal connection,” Karpowitz said he voted for Shalek in the aldermanic election, even with no knowledge of the political issues.
H. Richter Elser ’81, who ran for mayor as a Republican last week, said the divide between Yale and New Haven significantly impacts the shape of politics in the city. As residents of New Haven for their brief four years of school, Yale students do not realize that New Haven is its own vibrant community with residents who must face the consequences of political choices, Elser said.
“If Yale students want to end up living and working in a city with reasonable taxes and good jobs, and actually want to stay here, then they should get involved in politics,” Elser said. “If they’re just passing through … then they’re welcome to run for alderman in Ward 1, where they treat New Haven as a petri dish for political issues.”
Some classes at Yale treat New Haven as an experiment, Charlet said. Harry Wexler’s sophomore seminar “Perspectives on the City,” for example, includes a field trip into New Haven to explore issues from the political-science perspective.
But regardless of the gap between Yale and New Haven, such classes, Charlet said, might help decrease student apathy by raising awareness of the University’s economic and political impact on the city.
Plattus said the process of increasing civic activism in politics and community issues is an ongoing task.
“Student involvement, and particularly making sure that there are avenues for every student [who] wants to be involved, is really important and is certainly a priority,” Plattus said. “I think that … the job of finding students who are interested in being engaged with what’s going on in New Haven is never done.”
Plattus will take office in early January.