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The People at the Polls

Two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, Americans are riled up. In the 2018 midterms, on November 6, an estimated 113 million of them flocked to the polls, marking the highest turnout rate in a midterm election since 1966. That energy spread to New Haven, where turnout spiked by more than 7,500 votes from 2014 to 2018. Some voters showed up out of concern for thwe state of the nation: people like Ananya Kumar-Banerjee, who led a group of Yale Democrats across the Green to register at City Hall at 9 a.m. and said that on Election Day, she always wakes up in the morning without feeling tired. Others sought to weigh in on the tight gubernatorial race between Ned Lamont and Bob Stefanowski: people like Mark Cappabianca, a lifelong New Haven resident who is 57 and voted for the first time because he worries about cuts to services for people like him who are homeless or in recovery. The day wasn’t without its hiccups, from malfunctioning voting machines to a last-minute voter registration dash, but by Wednesday, the results were clear. Connecticut Democrats had prevailed in the House and Senate, and Lamont beat Stefanowski by 40,000 votes.

On voting day, TNJ reporters fanned out across New Haven to capture scenes from the election. In this series of dispatches from around the city, we hope to capture the energy that set the city’s forty polling places abuzz.

Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison, who represents the Dixwell neighborhood, stood outside the entrance of the Wexler-Grant School in a sweatshirt and yoga pants at 8 in the morning, beaming. Morrison had been there for an hour and a half, she said, “educating people about the ballot.” She began to hold forth on the importance of voting, interrupting herself to hug each individual who entered as elderly neighborhood residents and a smattering of Yale students trickled in from across the schoolyard. “Has your Jordan graduated high school yet? Still working 1,000 jobs? Well, tell him to get a move on!” Then, to me: “Sorry about that. Where was I? Oh. I vote because we need more money for neighborhood initiatives. More money for schools. When teachers are cut, children suffer—emotionally, too.” She paused again and dashed across the street to investigate after a neighbor told her the school didn’t know how to deal with a recent garbage overflow.

A few minutes later, she returned. “Connecticut has a good partnership,” she resumed, “between city and state. As Betty Morrison, my mother, would say, ‘They don’t take no tea for fever.’” I asked her if she felt the same way about the president. She laughed. “Oh, no. My mother said something else, too: ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it!’”

Abruptly, she turned back to business: a man in a leather jacket had somehow slipped past her hug. “Honey, do you know there are two sides to that piece of paper?” she asked, referring to the ballot. He didn’t. “Can you go back home and get everyone to come, and tell them there are two sides?” The man left. Half an hour later, he came back with a crowd.

— Beasie Goddu

Outside the glass-paneled wooden doors of the Hearing Room in the basement of the New Haven Hall of Records, Patrick Mitchell sat sentry halfway down a maroon-carpeted hallway, his legs and torso folded into a desk that was far too small for him. Mitchell, who is broad-shouldered, with closely-trimmed hair, wore squarish, thick-framed black glasses, a blazer and striped button down, and white-soled tennis shoes. Inside the Hearing Room, Ward 7 voters snaked their way through the line, about fifty strong, and cast their ballots. As they headed back out into the cold, misty morning, Mitchell flagged them down, proffering a white slip of paper.

Mitchell, an insurance agent who lives in Fair Haven Heights, has conducted exit polls for Edison Research in each of the past three Congressional elections. Media outlets have relied on exit polls to bolster their election coverage since the ‘70s, and Edison has conducted polling for the National Election Pool, a group of major news outlets including ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox News, and the Associated Press, since 2003. The practice may be fading; after exit polls erroneously pointed towards a Hillary Clinton victory in the 2016 Presidential Election, Fox and the AP dropped out of the Pool. But Mitchell sat dutifully, offering a sheet to every third voter who passed. Once they filled it out, confirming their ballot selections and filling out basic demographic information, Mitchell deposited the sheet into a small white box on the floor to his left.

Since he became eligible to vote in 1980, Mitchell hasn’t missed an election. He describes voting as a “family tradition.” He hails from Montgomery, and his parents worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to register voters during the Civil Rights Movement, once encountering Klansmen in rural Alabama on a registration drive. Later, they followed the Great Migration north to Connecticut. Now in their eighties, they live in Georgia, where they voted for Stacey Abrams, who was running to be the first Black woman elected to a governorship. Mitchell has five children, four of whom are old enough to vote. On Tuesday, he’d called them all and told them to get to the polls.

— Mark Rosenberg

At midday, the lobby of Wilbur Cross High School teemed with rain-coated residents of Wards 9 and 10, which include the East Rock neighborhood, Cedar Hill, and Fair Haven. They’d come to cast their ballots, waiting in line beneath SAT prep posters and Warhol-inspired student portraits. Outside, the basalt face of East Rock loomed over the parking lot, where supporters of Ned Lamont had set up a tent. (Bob Stefanowski’s campaign was nowhere in sight.)

Standing on the damp sidewalk after voting, East Rock resident Deniqua Brunson said she was “thinking about the younger children” this Election Day. The statement made her sound older than she looked, dressed in black Air Jordans and a gold-speckled black cap emblazoned with the word “Hustle” in red lettering. Brunson’s in her late twenties, but she’s never been apathetic towards politics. In terms of political engagement, she said, “I’m like a ten.”

Outside her job as a surgical tech at Yale New Haven Hospital, she helps underprivileged kids at Connecticut Behavioral Health. Some of the kids she works with have run away from home. Others can scarcely go to school because they lash out at other students. Brunson thinks the the root cause is often a home life made turbulent by unemployment. She wants more jobs for young people, and when Lamont visited the hospital to campaign earlier this year, she told him so. He seemed to listen, so he got her vote.

The current administration also worries Brunson. She doesn’t like the tone Donald Trump has set as President. “You can’t lead the country based on emotion,” she said. “Twitter should be taken away from him.”

— Will Reid

As the workday drew to an end and the sky continued to emit a light drizzle, Fair Haven residents trickled steadily through the front entrance of John S. Martinez School, a low-slung building with undulating brown walls. Volunteers for the New Haven Democratic Town Committee handed out sky blue voting guides in Spanish and English to those parking their cars. (Fair Haven’s population is 67 percent Latinx, according to 2016 numbers.) They cheered as Ward 16 residents entered and left. Inside, pensive voters mulled over their decisions in the glow of a row of booths.

Standing under the awning just outside the front doors, Ebony McClease and Vincenzo Ferraro, two strangers donning matching “I Voted!” stickers, attempted to find middle ground on issues ranging from taxation and healthcare to gun reform and immigration policy.

“If it’s hatred, it’s hatred. I don’t care how you slice it,” McClease said. “Right now, there’s a lot of sentiment and language that is scary. Everybody needs to take a step back sometimes. What if you were in someone else’s shoes?”

Ferraro, a silver-haired former factory owner and registered Democrat, cast his vote for Bob Stefanowski in the gubernatorial race. An Italian immigrant who arrived to the United States thirty years ago, he feels gun control reform is unnecessary, approves of Donald Trump’s policies thus far, and expressed disdain for undocumented immigrants. McClease, a Doc Martens-clad millennial who said she has worked in public service, believes America is behind the rest of the world in terms of affordable healthcare, education, immigration and gun policy. Above all, she emphasized how uncomfortable she feels navigating the current political climate, especially as a person of color.

“There are other things that play into America besides just being fair,” she said. “There are things like racial inequality. That’s a real thing in America, it’s not made up, it exists.”

In a rare moment of agreement, Ferraro said he had biracial grandchildren, and he was worried about how they would be treated in the future. “They’re going to experience the world differently, and that’s sad,” McClease said.

As Ferraro and McClease prepared to part ways, they discovered that Ferraro’s wife had grown up with McClease’s father in New Haven. “Small world!” they both declared, laughing as they departed into the night.

— Hailey Andrews

At 7 p.m., the line to register to vote at City Hall snaked all the way around the building’s second floor. Yale students in line had surrendered to the floor, open textbooks on their laps. Volunteers from the League of Women Voters and Yale Law School circulated with registration forms, boxes of Wall Street Pizza, and plastic cups of water. “It’s not a dinner party, it’s not rude if you take it,” said one, offering the final donut in a Dunkin’ carton to a young woman filling out her form. The food went fast: some in line had been waiting nearly four hours.

For the third year in a row, New Haven was unprepared for the legion of unregistered voters who turned up at City Hall on Election Day. Many were Yale students like Jack Frésquez, a sophomore in Hopper College, who had hoped to vote in a contentious Senate race at home in Arizona. When he realized that his absentee ballot wouldn’t arrive in time, he was grateful to find out that Connecticut is one of just fifteen states that offer same-day registration. But Frésquez had been in line since 3:30. With just an hour to go before the deadline, it seemed impossible that the city could process the hundreds of people still waiting to register.

Volunteers and city officials went into battle mode. Law students directed those in line to take photos of their registration forms and email them to a student who would catalogue them. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat up for reelection, strode through the crowd in high-heeled boots and a long, striped dress, firing questions at officials from the Secretary of the State’s office over the phone. A few minutes later, speaking into a bullhorn, John Rose, Jr., chief counsel for the city, called all first-time Connecticut voters into the lobby. Around fifty people shuffled in. A woman with four small children in tow waited quietly for directions. With just fifteen minutes left, the announcement came: the higher-ups had given New Haven officials permission to swear these voters in and send them to the ballot boxes with filled-out registration forms. There was a sigh of relief, and the masses made their way to the voting line.

When the clock struck 8, that line still stretched all the way down the hall –– but its members would get to vote. Less fortunate were hopeful registrants who weren’t new to Connecticut; in the registration room, election moderator Kevin Arnold apologized and turned them away.

At 8:15, Mayor Toni Harp stood by the registration computers in tennis shoes and a black suit. She greeted me with a tired smile. She said she was glad that the chief counsel had found a way to make sure first-time voters could cast their ballots. “We’ve learned a lot from how many people came, and perhaps how to do a better job next time,” she said.

At the tables in front of her, the half-dozen women who had spent the day registering hundreds of people were finally getting to their feet. Cynthia Woods had been there since 5 a.m. “My eyes are burning,” she said, laughing. But she hadn’t lost the gentle tone she’d been using all day. She worked election day last year, too, she said, and she’d do it again.

“You know, the body is physically tired, but I’m just on such a high, seeing the process come through, seeing folks get excited about wanting to vote.” She smiled. “I think it’s really exciting.”

— Annie Rosenthal

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