Last week in section, my classmate mentioned a term I’d never heard before: Yalien. It was a nickname, she said, imparted to her by a local New Haven hairdresser. “Yaliens” — the breed of creatures that infiltrate the city for four years or so. They occasionally seek out haircuts but for the most part remain confined to their Gothic territory.
This nickname shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s yet another manifestation of that town-gown divide that at this point is almost a cliché.
But one day each year offers us the opportunity to dismantle that much discussed division, if only just a bit. Election Day gives most students, regardless of their involvement in local politics, the chance to think more actively about our vision for New Haven and our place within this city. It’s unfortunately an opportunity that vast swaths of the student body turn down.
In the 2013 election, 29 percent of registered voters in New Haven turned out to vote — a 5 percent increase in turnout from 2011 and a 10 percent increase from 2009. Yet in Ward 1, in which Yalies are the main constituents, voter turnout diminished despite the fierce contest between incumbent Sarah Eidelson ’12 and challenger Paul Chandler ’14.
That diminished voter turnout signifies something troubling to the residents of New Haven: It says we don’t care. It says we can’t be bothered to think critically about local government and cast our votes for the plans and policies that resonate with us. It reinforces that “Yalien” notion, the idea that this city isn’t really our home.
Last year on Election Day, I spent the morning distributing “Get out the vote” door hangers. I was surprised by the number of students I encountered who point-blank told me they had no time to vote.
I wanted to tell them voting would never get easier than it is now: Our polling place is mere blocks away and rarely has long lines. Thanks to Public Act 12-56, passed in May 2012, Connecticut residents can now register to vote on Election Day. And lack of information is hardly an excuse. In the weeks before Election Day, student organizations distribute every pamphlet and article and infographic one would need to choose between the candidates.
Social scientists have found that voting at a young age creates a pattern of behavior. If you make voting a priority early on in life, you’re more likely to continue making the time for it every consecutive year. Yalies are busy and everyone has homework and meetings and class — but what do our current actions say about our level of future political involvement? By making up excuses now, we’re priming ourselves for a future of disengagement.
Last year, standing on line to vote, I was struck by the number of New Haven residents who had made every sacrifice necessary to ensure they could get to the polls on time. I overheard Yale employees who were using their preciously limited break time to vote. Other volunteers told stories of voters who had made complex arrangements to leave work early or have neighbors pick their children up from school so they could make it to the polls. This degree of effort demonstrates how deeply residents care about the future of our community. It’s easy, in the moment, to generate a litany of excuses that justify our unwillingness to make it to the polls. But ultimately, those excuses have a name: apathy. Today presents a valuable opportunity to tie ourselves to this city, to prove we’re not the Yaliens we may seem.
Emma Goldberg is a senior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at email@example.com .