Nati Tesfaye, Contributing Photographer

Five community leaders from Yale and New Haven spoke at a panel on Nov. 9, the day after the midterm elections, to reflect on the state of democracy in the United States. 

The panel, organized by Yale Votes, consisted of New Haven organizer James Jeter, journalist Emily Bazelon ’93 JD ’00, Yale Law School lecturer Kayla Vinson ’11, City of New Haven arts administrator Adriane Jefferson and Saybrook Head of College Ferentz Lafargue GRD ’04. The group offered their personal perspectives on democracy, while also providing attendees with a local and national history of what political engagement has looked like since America’s founding. 

“The purpose of the panel was to come together to acknowledge this moment in our political history, as students have done for decades at the House after elections,” said Sophie Kane ’24, the head of Yale Votes. “Elections are significant milestones in our lives — they transform our communities. It is important to allow space for these moments, especially on a campus like ours so engaged with these issues but disparately impacted by the outcomes of electoral politics.” 

Yale Votes — a student group hoping to foster and promote political engagement — spent the weeks leading up to the midterm encouraging Yalies to vote and engage in politics.

Jeter, who founded the Dwight Hall Civic Allyship Initiative and works extensively with the Yale Prison Education Initiative, began his reflection of the midterms by acknowledging the marginalization of minority voters and the profound sense of distrust some have in the system.

“We are a people who think in terms of minimalized harm as a win,” he said. “That coupled with the suppression of the prison population show the shortcomings of America’s democracy.”

Other panelists agreed with Jeter and spoke on the harsh realities of America’s history with voting rights. Jeter emphasized that the current system fails to account for all citizens.

The media was another source of concern for some panelists, including Jefferson, who is the director of arts and cultural affairs in New Haven. Given the polarized nature of the press, Americans have become increasingly exposed to sensationalized headlines, according to Jefferson.

“I think the idea that democracy has been at stake is not new,” Jefferson said. “I think in the media that rhetoric is very dangerous. The media plays a big part in how people view elections and that is because people want something that is going to reinvigorate them.” 

Jefferson also mentioned the rise of misinformation. The panel agreed education must become a far more foundational and critical aspect of voting in this country. 

Despite the importance of voting, Vinson, the executive director of the Law and Racial Justice Center at the Law School, emphasized how our hyperfixation on voting could narrow our understanding of how we can engage with politics. 

“The more election days come the more election day becomes a day I worry about the outsized role voting plays in our understanding of democracy,” she said. “In a very practical way if we think about democracy solely through the lens of voting then we are in a crisis.” 

Instead of seeing voting as the end all be all, it should be regarded as a step in the right direction, according to Bazelon, who is also a professor at the Law School.

Voting locally is another move in the right direction, according to the panel.

Several panelists elaborated on the importance of voting in local elections as a crucial step in changing our current systems. Bazelon, whose son Eli Sabin ’22 is a Ward 7 alderman, described these state level elections as “a fight you can have an impact in.” 

The panelists urged attendees to get involved and engage with New Haven and their local communities. Jeter highlighted the importance of college campuses as grounds for grassroots political movements, considering their resources and student body size.  

Prince Osaji ’26, an attendee, found the panel’s assessment very insightful.

“I learned more about what it really takes to strengthen our democracy and the growing dangers to it, whether it was the disenfranchisement of certain individuals or the drowning out of individual voices by corporations,” Osaji said. “It was really meaningful to hear from a nonpartisan panel and to be reminded that there is no one party that is threatening democracy.” 

Yale Votes hopes to sponsor similar events in the future to foster more discussions on campus and increase voter turnout at the state and national level. 

Connecticut has an estimated 2.6 million eligible voters. 

Nati Tesfaye is a sophomore in Branford College from East Haven, Connecticut. He covers business, workers and unions in the city of New Haven. Last year, he covered housing and homelessness for the News.