OPINION: Change the Wallingford charter to allow direct representation



 

By Alida Cella

Pop quiz for you, Wallingford residents: Can you name the Town Council member for your District? Your Board of Ed representative?       

Trick question! You don’t have one. In Wallingford, all our representatives are “atlarge.”

What is at large?

At large is a voting system that is so deeply undemocratic that Congress banned it in the Apportionment Act of 1842, and again in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many states passed similar legislation, and only a few towns in Connecticut still have at-large representation.

Typically, with a direct representative system of governance, a town is divided into districts, and each district elects a representative. Wallingford has nine districts, but candidates run town wide. The nine who get the most votes become the Town Council/BOE. Three seats are reserved for the minority party, so no party can win more than six seats.

Impact on the voter

As a voter, in a normal direct representation system, you’re voting for three positions from a pool of six candidates — one Town Councilor, one BOE member, and mayor.

In at-large voting, everyone votes for all 19 municipal seats. Voters pick up to nine candidates for Town Council, nine for Board of Ed, and Mayor; 19 candidates. Assuming two candidates run per seat, an educated voter researches 38 candidates! Worse, while using all nine of your votes feels like the right and democratic thing to do, using your last three votes counts AGAINST the first 6 people you picked. Sound confusing? That’s on purpose, another disadvantage of at large.

Impact on the candidates

Compare our municipal at-large voting to how our state elections are run. State House seats typically represent about 23,000 constituents. Municipal At-large representatives cover all of Wallingford — 45,000 residents, meaning our town councilors represent more constituents than our State House representatives do. In terms of campaigning, it is more difficult and resource intensive to run for Wallingford Town Council than for State House: you need to campaign over a wider area, reach more voters, AND you are running against 12 to 18 other candidates instead of just one; the only hope of winning is to promote name recognition at a significant cost — for a position that pays next to nothing, or nothing at all. State House Representatives are paid, AND can get public money to run their campaigns.

Worse, mediocre (or terrible) incumbents are impossible to challenge. Since the nine seats are split so that the minority party is guaranteed at least three, the most an opposing party can do is win six and hope the incumbent they’re targeting doesn’t get enough votes to keep one of the three reserved seats. But in a system based on name recognition instead of merit, it’s nearly impossible to do.

Impact on representation

The at-large system has been called “the oldest trick in the book” for fixing an election and eliminating fair representation. Over the past ten years, at least four of Wallingford’s nine districts have had no representation on the Town Council. The Council has been dominated by career politicians from the same part of town (District 9), who are comfortable and accomplish very little. Wallingford residents don’t always know who to turn to for help, especially when they require town services that are denied and there seems to be no recourse. And, because there are no councilors dedicated to a specific district, most residents don’t personally know their representatives.

The solution? Change the charter to allow for direct representation, the same system used for all the other offices we vote for at the state and federal level. Each councilor and Board of Ed member would be responsive to their district and accessible to the 4,000-5,000 people they represent. Changing the charter requires approval by the Town Council and a public referendum. As we head into voting booths this year, think about which party wants positive change for Wallingford and has a vision for our future. Which party stands for fairness, representation, and accountability?

Alida Cella is chair of the Wallingford Democratic Town Committee.



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