Wallingford maintains an “at-large” election system for electing the town council and board of education. This system is so deeply un-democratic that the US Congress banned the system from federal elections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and many other states passed similar legislation. The “at-large” system has been called “the oldest trick in the book” for fixing an election and eliminating fair representation.
How does it work? We’ll talk about the Town Council, but the exact same principle applies for the Board of Education:
Typically, with a representative system of governance, a town would be divided into districts, and each district would elect someone as their representative. That representative would be directly accountable to that district. Wallingford has 9 districts, but we prevent them from sending representatives to the council. Instead, all candidates run town wide, and the nine who get the most votes become the Town Council. Three seats are reserved for the minority party, so no party can win more than 6 seats.
How is that unfair?
* It’s very difficult for regular people to get elected:
Even in a moderately-sized town like Wallingford, getting elected town wide is more difficult than being elected to the CT State General Assembly. The town of Wallingford is larger than a CT General Assembly district, and most people don’t have access to the tens of thousands of dollars needed to compete or get their message out to 50,000 residents (or however many registered voters out of that 50,000). To compound the problem, candidates are competing against 12-18 other candidates for one of 6 possible seats, because each party cannot win more than 6 seats. In a Direct Representative system, a candidate would be knocking on 1/9th of the doors, to distinguish themselves against one incumbent.
* Mediocre (or terrible) Incumbents are impossible to challenge:
Because of the money and resources required for anyone to run in an at-large system (not to mention the zero to almost zero pay for the job won at the end), means that town councils are dominated by a handful of powerful and prominent families, or by big-name lawyers and businessmen with the name recognition and money needed to compete. That doesn’t mean they are the best person for the job, they just happen to be in a situation where they can win.
Let’s say there is an incumbent with strong name recognition who is doing a poor job. That incumbent cannot be challenged directly – the most an opposing party can hope to do is win the maximum seats and the incumbent they’re targeting does NOT win one of the three seats left to the minority party. Worse, because the system thrives on the premise that most voters cannot possibly know all the issues and positions of all 12-18 Town Council candidates, (on top of 12-18 Board of Education candidates, 24-36 candidates total), voters end up relying on name recognition or party line to make their pick; exactly what the system is designed to do.
* Incentive to run fewer candidates:
Since there can be no more than six councilors from one political party, while parties can run up to 9 candidates, it does not make sense to do so. Running more than six candidates in an at-large system dilutes monetary, technical, and human resources. Parties therefore work to block candidates from running, particularly new people who don’t have the political recognition or clout. But the alternative, allowing more to run, encourages candidates from the same party to compete against each other to distinguish themselves, instead of focusing on the issues or the other party, and worse, could dilute the party’s chances of even winning six seats. The debate over how many candidates a party should run can cause friction and division within the party and amongst members – it’s not healthy and distracts from the real issues of the day.
How has this impacted Wallingford?
Proponents of at-large systems claim that each elected official represents everyone in town, but in reality, residents are left without anybody they can hold accountable as their representative.
Representation on the Wallingford Town Council is incredibly distorted. Over the past ten years, at least four of the town’s nine districts have had no representation on the council. The council has consistently been dominated by a handful of career politicians—all coming from the same part of town (District 9)—who are comfortable in their positions but accomplish very little.
The Republican dominated council has failed in its duty to act as a check on the 38-year incumbent Republican mayor, with the result being our town has been stagnant relative to neighboring towns. We have failed to invest in and develop large parts of our town (e.g., lower downtown, Yalesville). It is no coincidence that the underdeveloped parts of town are the same parts that have little or no council representation. This, on top of lack of technology infrastructure investment (Town Hall has no e-mail or internet); failure to invest funds so that savings can grow; failure to avail ourselves of state and federal grants for infrastructure improvements (roads, schools, businesses); failure to improve zoning laws and regulations to encourage new and creative businesses; all of this adds up to an obvious need for change.
Direct Representation would allow residents to have a Councilor in their district that they can go directly to with issues, and that Councilor would have a stake in making sure that issues are addressed. Incumbents, if not doing a good job, could more easily be challenged by the other party; would be fewer doors to knock to have the discussions needed, and there would be just two candidates for voters to choose from. Town Councilors would have incentive to challenge the Mayor, be able to distinguish themselves from the field, and we’d be less likely to end up in this situation again.
How do we change At-Large voting in Wallingford?
The irony of the situation is that the very people that the system benefits would have to be willing to change the system (and possibly hurt their own political careers). But we have started this discussion with current candidates, and if voters in Wallingford understand how the structural voting system is holding us all back, we can vote for politicians who would be willing to change the Town Charter to end At-Large voting.