Shenell Charles didn’t register as either a Republican or a Democrat because she shares views on both sides. Gerard Scott became an unaffiliated voter by accident. Crissa Stokes said she doesn’t know what distinguishes Democrats from Republicans, so she split the difference. Brother Born said he’s unaffiliated so that he can “hear all the lies at once.”
Those voters, and 18,000 others like them, might make the difference in November’s mayoral election.
Most New Haven voters—50,243 people as of Sept. 11—are Democrats. But the second largest bloc of voters comprises people who by definition refuse to form a bloc. They’re the 18,315 unaffiliated voters, people who register to vote but don’t sign up as a Democrat or a Republican or a Green or as a member of any other political party.
Figuring out what, if anything, unites or defines them is a tricky exercise, one in which the two campaigns for mayor are deeply engaged.
Now that the Democratic primary election is over, those 18,315 unaffiliated voters will have an opportunity to cast ballots in the general election. Mayoral candidate Justin Elicker is counting on them helping him turn his second-place Democratic primary finish into a first-place victory in November.
Elicker is running in the general as an independent candidate. He’s competing for the open mayoral seat with Democrat Toni Harp, who captured 7,327 votes in the primary, nearly 50 percent of votes cast.
Elicker received 3,417 votes in the primary, less than half of Harp’s count. He’s hoping to make up the difference in part by picking up supporters of the two mayoral candidates who dropped out after the primary. Those candidates—Kermit Carolina and Henry Fernandez—together captured 3,979 votes.
Elicker is also banking on unaffiliated voters flocking to his candidacy. He said he’s expecting 4,000 unaffiliated New Haveners to vote in the general election.
“Why are they unaffiliated? Because they are tired of politics as usual,” Elicker proclaimed in a primary election-night speech to his supporters. “Those people are ours!”
Are they his? Or are they more likely to vote for Harp? Or are they even likely to vote at all?
We won’t have definitive answers to those questions until the evening of Nov. 5. Here’s what we do know.
Where They Are
Unaffiliated voters are distributed fairly evenly through much of the city. (See map at top of the story.) But several wards have a disproportionate number of them.
Downtown & Yale: Most notable is Ward 1, which had a whopping 1,176 unaffiliated voters as of Sept. 11, according to the office of the registrar of voters. Since the ward comprises Yale University almost exclusively, these voters are mostly undergrads living in dorms.
Students may not have formed a political ideology yet, Elicker speculated when asked about the spike of unaffiliated voters in Ward 1.
“They’re really young,” he said. “They may just not be passionate about a political party yet.”
That’s the case for Emma Speer (pictured), a newly arrived freshman from Bridgeport. “I’m 18 and never voted before and don’t know enough about politics to identify myself with a party.”
Speer said she registered to vote on dorm move-in day when people were asking students to sign up.
Downtown’s Ward 7, which borders Ward 1, also has a high number of unaffiliated voters. Doug Hausladen, the ward’s alderman said that may also be because many of them are students.
Hausladen said many of his constituents are “grad school folks” who may not realize New Haven has closed primaries where only party members are allowed to vote. “They don’t think to register in a party.” (Connecticut’s Republican Party used to let unaffiliateds vote in its primaries.)
Another complicating factor in Wards 1 and Ward 7: some students live in New Haven for a short time. There may be a large number of people who are registered to vote there, but have finished their degrees and no longer live in New Haven.
West Rock: Ward 30, West Rock, has the second largest pool of unaffiliated voters in the city after Ward 1, probably for the same reason: students. Most of Southern Connecticut State University’s dorms are in Ward 30, said Darnell Goldson, the ward’s former alderman.
“Those kids usually register unaffiliated,” he said. “You know, young, independent, don’t want to be committed to one thing or another.”
Goldson listed a couple of other reasons Ward 30 has a lot of unaffiliated voters. It has a Job Corps site and Crossroads, a home for people coming out of drug programs or jail. Both of those institutions regularly register their participants. Goldson said people there are likely to register as unaffiliated since they usually don’t follow politics closely.
East & Northeast: The East Shore’s Ward 18 has the fifth most unaffiliated voters of any ward. Probably not coincidentally, Ward 18 also has by far the highest number of Republicans of any ward, with 278 members of the GOP.
Wards 11 and 12, in the northeast corner of the city, also has many unaffiliated voters. Ward 11 is populated largely by the senior citizens at Bella Vista, which goes against the trend in Ward 1, where unaffiliated voters seem to be young.
How Young They Are
Citywide, unaffiliated voters are young. At least, they tend to be younger than Democrats and Republicans. The average unaffiliated age is 40, a few years below the Democratic and GOP averages of 46 and 48 respectively.
A closer look at the numbers shows that more than half of unaffiliated voters in New Haven are under the age of 40. And a third are under 30.
That’s in contrast to the Democratic Party. Less than a quarter of New Haven Democrats are under 30 and less than half are under 40.
Why They Are
Unaffiliated voters are unaffiliated for several reasons. They may, like Speers the Yale freshman, have not yet formed a political ideology. Or they may feel that the established parties don’t represent their views. Or they may be unaffiliated by mistake.
Oops!: Gerard Scott, a 22-year-old who lives in Upper Westville’s Ward 26 thought he had registered as a Democrat, but he’s listed as an unaffiliated voter. He said tried to vote in the Democratic primary and was turned away.
That was also the case for Latasha Ward, who lives in the Annex in Ward 17 and it listed as an unaffiliated voter. “I’m a Democrat,” she said. “When I went to vote in the primary, I couldn’t vote.”
Some percentage of unaffiliated voters are so listed in error, whether by checking the wrong box or through some error in the registrar’s office. Since New Haven is overwhelmingly a Democratic city, chances are these unaffiliateds-in-name-only are de facto Democrats.
Jason Bartlett, Harp’s campaign manager, said he thinks unaffiliated voters are a mix of people who choose to be outside of the party system and people who “accidentally become unaffiliated and think of themselves as Democrats.”
“Probably 50-50, that would be my guess,” he said.
“I think in New Haven, unaffiliated voters are really Democrats in terms of their ideology,” Bartlett said. He pointed to Democrat Gov. Dannel Malloy’s election in 2010. “New Haven delivered for the governor. Most people here think like Democrats. Ideologically people are pretty blue.”
If unaffiliated voters really think of themselves as Democrats, they might vote the party line and get behind Harp in November.
But if they don’t pay attention to party when they’re filling out the voter registration form, why would they pay attention when filling out their ballot?
In Between: Elicker agreed with Bartlett that some portion of unaffiliated voters are unaffiliated by mistake, forgetting to check a box. But after calling 100 unaffiliated voters earlier this week, he said he found that most of them registered that way intentionally.
“They are generally people that don’t like institutional politics,” he said. They’re “somewhat frustrated with that system.”
“There’s not way to make sense out of the confusion,” said Yancey Horton, known as Brother Born. The two parties are so mixed up and have changed their stances so much throughout history, that it’s better not to identify with either, he said.
Modern Democrats represent equality to African-Americans, but the Democrats were historically allied with the Ku Klux Klan, and it was Republican President Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, Brother Born said.
“It’s just very hard to choose either one of those sides,” he said. “That’s why I stay independent, so both sides have to pander to me.”
“I make up my decisions based on what I feel is right,” said Shennel Charles, a 30-year-old unaffiliated voter in Westville. “I share views from both parties. It depends on the time and the moment.”
Others stay unaffiliated for religious reasons. “I’m Roman Catholic and hold views that are found in both parties,” said an unaffiliated voter on Willow Street in East Rock. She said she’s against abortion, and against the death penalty. She finds herself “caught between” the Democrats and the Republicans.
“There are some principles that I believe in that are more Republican and others that are more Democratic,” said John Baxter, a Yale freshman who recently registered as unaffiliated. He said he’s not quite sure what he wants in a mayor. “But I will know what I don’t like whenever I see it.”
Don’t Know/Don’t Care: It’s not just students who are ideologically inchoate. Crissa Stokes, 23-year-old full-time mom in Newhallville, said she registered as unaffiliated because “I didn’t want to make a choice” between Democrats and Republicans. “What are the differences? What makes them different?
Stokes said she doesn’t follow the news closely.
“I don’t know about them, so that’s why I didn’t choose,” 21-year-old unaffiliated voter Angelica Perez said of the major political parties. “I didn’t know which one to pick.” She said she hasn’t been following the mayoral campaign and doesn’t know when the election is.
“I’m just not into it,” said Fredrick Chisolm, a 23-year-old who lives on Shelton Avenue. He said he doesn’t follow politics and only registered to get people to stop asking him to. “It’s something I don’t really care about, to be honest.”
Does It Matter?
Does party affiliation even matter that much in local elections? Elicker said he thinks not.
Party lines are clear on national issues: abortion, gun rights, social services. On the municipal level, the issues are more universal, Elicker said. He mentions schools, safety, jobs.
“The overwhelming majority of people we’ve spoken with in the campaign are interested in the candidate and what the candidates can do for the city, and not as much in the party,” Elicker said.
But Bartlett said party affiliation might still be a predictor on the local level, a predictor of local engagement. “Unaffiliated voters, I’m going to guess, are more interested in national politics,” he said.
Speer the college freshman from Bridgeport, said that’s true for her. She said doesn’t know much about the mayor’s race, and isn’t planning to vote in November.
Chisolm, the guy who registered so people would stop bugging him, also said he’s not planning to vote.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important question ...
How Many Will Vote?
Elicker (pictured schmoozing with Sgts. Herb Johnson and Sam Brown before Thursday morning’s weekly CompStat meeting at police headquarters) said his campaign is expecting 4,000 unaffiliated voters to go to the polls in November. If he wins the majority of those, it might be enough to put him over the top.
But Bartlett, Harp’s campaign manager, offered a lower turnout estimate. “We’re only expecting two to four thousand.”
“We think Democrats are still going to dominate,” he said. Unaffiliated voters are “not the deciding factor.”
In the mayoral general election two years ago, only about 2,000 of a total of 15,000 votes were cast by unaffiliated voters, Bartlett said. Mayor John DeStefano won reelection.
“Unaffiliated voters have supported DeStefano” because they like his “leadership and stability,” Bartlett said. “Toni Harp is the best candidate to provide that same leadership.”
What Do They Want?
In the end, both campaigns said unaffiliated voters in New Haven want the same things Democrats want.
“It’s good schools, safe streets, getting your sidewalk fixed,” Elicker said.
“My guess is they’re going to care about the same issues that we found people care about in the Democratic party,” Bartlett said.
Campaigning in the general election is therefore just like campaigning in the primary.
“Our message is one that will still appeal to unaffiliated and Republican voters,” Bartlett said.
It may ultimately be less about party affiliation and more about political engagement. “We try to determine who those prime voters are, who’s going to vote,” Bartlett said.
“We’re doing the same thing we did with the Democrats: knocking on doors, making phone calls all day long,” Elicker said.