NEW HAVEN’S FAILED LEGAL RESPONSE
Following Judge Blumenthal’s initial ruling, the case was as unsettled as residents were.
On Wednesday, Sept. 15 — a day before the deadline to register to vote in the primary election — the City of New Haven appealed the decision to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. Corporation Counsel Thomas Keyes Jr. argued that federal courts do not have jurisdiction in local elections, citing the Supreme Court case U.S. v. Arizona, which established that 18-year-old voting provisions were constitutional and enforceable when pertaining to federal but not local elections.
His attempt fell flat almost immediately. The three-judge panel dismissed the case before hearing the ACLU’s rebuttal, leading Sosnoff to remark to the Register, “This must have been one of the shortest court sessions I have ever seen.”
Sosnoff was the only one of the students’ main lawyers to witness the session. In an interview with the News, Snyder reminisced about a delayed train that left him and Wizner “huffing and puffing and running into court” only to be told by the chief judge that their arguments would be unnecessary.
The two joined a defeated Keyes for their train ride back to New Haven.
The circuit court’s dismissal affirmed Judge Blumenfeld’s earlier decision that the Elm City could not ask student applicants any questions beyond those asked of all prospective voters. Keyes interpreted Blumenfeld’s ruling to mean that the registrar could ask detailed, personal questions to student applicants — provided that those same questions were also asked of everyone else.
On Wednesday morning, before the appeal was dismissed, Keyes had instructed the registrar to ask all prospective voters a list of 13 court-approved questions. At 2:40 p.m. that day, he doubled the list and required that the new questionnaire be administered on paper rather than orally.
In addition to 22 other queries, applicants were asked whether they regarded New Haven as their home, whether they had claimed any other addresses in the past six months, whether they or their spouse own a car registered or taxed in another city, and where they are registered for the draft, if applicable.
According to Keyes, even if a student regarded New Haven as their home, they were not entitled to vote if any of their other responses indicated ties to a different jurisdiction. The Yale students and their lawyers criticized Keyes’ questionnaire as inconsistent with the spirit of the law.
“The questionnaire is unreasonable and is burdensome on the registration process,” Sosnoff told the Register in 1971. “Further, it operates as an English literacy test and hurts groups like Spanish-speaking people.”
Keyes, defending his 26 questions, told the News at the time, “We have never quarrelled with the contention that anyone who makes New Haven his home for six months or longer is entitled to vote. These questions are simply designed to find out whether this is permanent residence or not.”
TROUBLE AT THE POLLS
At the very least, Sosnoff was correct about one thing. The questionnaire was undoubtedly burdensome, increasing the time to process a registration application from mere minutes to over an hour. With a line that began forming outside the Hall of Records half an hour before it opened on Sept. 16, 1971, the registration deadline, this time increase was significant.
Progressive candidate Parker’s backers claimed that Keyes drew up the questionnaire to harass prospective student voters. Registrar workers responded with a similar accusation.
“It’s the Parker workers,” a Board of Selectmen spokesperson told the Register at the time. “They’ve disrupted our attempts to help people, they’ve called the ladies here MFers, and then they charge us with harassment.”
More than 1,000 new voters registered on Thursday, and more than half of them were Yale students. On Sept. 21 — just one day before the primary — over 100 students received notices informing them that their applications had been called into question on the basis of failed residency requirements. Deputy Town Clerk Sal Franco told the News that the Board of Selectmen invited applicants with only a driver’s license from outside of New Haven to return for further questioning, but outright rejected those applicants with both a driver’s license and draft registration outside of the Elm City. Of the 114 invited to return, 56 showed up on election day and were added to voter rolls.
Those 56 voters were a minority among their peers. Five-hundred-nineteen students who met Blumenthal’s qualification standards attempted to register; of these, 309 — or 59 percent — were rejected. Only 32 of the more than 1,000 non-student applicants met a similar fate.
The students’ lawyers criticized the city for engaging in illegal disenfranchisement. Eighty-one percent of rejected students were turned down on the grounds of out-of-state drivers’ licenses, while more than half of similarly situated non-students were accepted. Blumenthal’s opinion had specifically ruled out drivers’ licenses as a permissible justification for rejection.
“The procedures read like a Southern voting case with blacks in the early 1960’s,” Sosnoff told the Register. “They were clearly discriminating against students.”
The plaintiffs’ legal team charged the Elm City with contempt and moved for supplementary relief. They sought to compel the city to allow students who had been denied registration to vote after the polls closed. That day, Federal District Court Judge Robert Zampano signed an order directing the City of New Haven to provide reasons why it should not be charged with contempt of Judge Blumenfeld’s order, which required the city to register students who demonstrated a clear intent to reside in New Haven. A hearing for the issue was set for Sept. 30.
THE PRIMARY AND THE MACHINE
In the meantime, New Haven witnessed the end of a fierce three-way contest for the city’s top office. The 1971 race featured incumbent Mayor Bartholemew Guida and his two challengers, community organizer Parker and labor leader Vincent Sirabella. Guida, who emerged victorious, remarked that the primary was unlike anything he’d experienced in his 35 years of political life.
In essence, it was a competition between reform Democrats — led by Parker — and the party establishment. Guida’s administration had been marred by scandal and his challengers liberally used words like “graft,” “corruption,” and “bossism” to describe his tenure. In the general election, Republican candidate Paul Capra would decry the mayor and Democratic Town Committee chairman Arthur T. Barbieri as the “Barbeiri-Guida Machine.”
Guida ran on his prior record of preventing the collapse of urban renewal programs sponsored by the federal government and managing a volatile political environment in the Elm City. He also cited efforts to address the “nagging problem of what to do about large tax-exempt institutions in our midst which receive all the essential municipal and protective services without contributing their fair share towards the cost of that service,” clearly referring to the University.
Parker, who finished second to Guida in the 1969 mayoral contest, built his campaign around four key issues — economic development, education, Yale’s role as a “city within a city” and taxation — as well as voter registration efforts. His campaign registered nearly 5,000 voters in advance of the primary election.
Guida’s campaign also pushed for voter registration, but unlike Parker, it did not concentrate on the recent additions to New Haven’s electorate.
“If we don’t [turn out]” Guida’s campaign manager warned, “the university-student movement may, ironically, teach New Haveners their first lesson in the politics of the 1970s.”
Indeed, Parker was the clear favorite among Yale students and faculty, and managed to flip Ward 1, which houses the majority of the University campus. Just two years earlier, he lost the ward and the primary to the Mayor. While Parker did not go on to win the day in 1971, reform Democrats captured 11 seats on the Board of Alders.
The relationship between Guida’s campaign rhetoric, the Elm City’s machine politics and the Board of Selectmen’s rejection of student applications was not lost on Wizner.
“They [the selectmen] seem to be thinking, ‘let’s win the election and then worry about the judge’s order,’ which is disgraceful,” Wizner told the News.
THE PUBLIC DEBATE CONTINUES
The Sept. 30 proceedings did not go the students’ way and their motion for contempt was denied, according to the court docket. As such, no student votes were added to the election totals. However, even if they had been, Guida’s margin of victory was too broad for the student vote to have made a difference.
The court did, however, affirm that the Board of Selectmen was prohibited from rejecting any of the plaintiffs or similarly-situated applicants except upon “clear and convincing evidence of non-residency.” With the primary election in the past, the students turned their attention to an Oct. 9 deadline to register to vote in the 1971 general election on Nov. 2.
In response to a letter published in the New Haven Register encouraging students to vote in their hometowns, graduate student Joseph Minarik submitted his own letter criticizing the “paternalistic attitude of college town people for students, which can best be expressed as ‘we’ll take your money in our stores and for rent, but try to vote.’”
The original letter, entitled “Should Vote Absentee,” expressed a fear that college voters would upset the “political balance” of the Elm City. In repudiation, Minarik cited a Supreme Court ruling that disenfranchising segments of the population based on how they may vote is unconstitutional.
A MAYORAL RACE IS DECIDED — THE COURT CASE ISN’T
The debate, rampant in city newspapers, also continued in the courtroom.
After several hours of litigation on Oct. 6, Judge Blumenfeld ruled that the proceedings — which focused on the 26-question form — had become “too repetitious.” He ordered the plaintiffs to return only when they had collected all the facts.
Wizner and Charles Kleinberg GRD ’72, a third-year graduate student, drew up a summary on Oct. 7. Kleinberg told the News that they were trying to prove “a systematic bias, or any type of bias” against prospective student voters. They specifically cited the case of two Jonathan Edwards students, both of whom had out-of-state drivers’ licenses, out-of-state parents and Jonathan Edwards College recorded as their New Haven address. One of these students was able to register for the primary election, while the other was not.
Fifty-nine percent of qualified student applicants were rejected, as compared to less than three percent of non-students. New Haven’s Board of Selectmen judged the majority of rejected student applicants by standards — specifically, out-of-state drivers’ licenses — which were ruled illegal in September.
Neither the News’ nor the Register’s articles indicate that students experienced significant difficulties in registering for the general election. The general was also marked by increased voter mobilization efforts as students and city officials organized registration drives on Yale’s campus and throughout the Elm City.
The race featured Guida and Republican Paul Capra, who criticized, among many things, the Guida administration’s “lackluster” efforts to tax currently exempt property like that of the University.
Guida did, however, meet with members of the Yale Corporation in October to discuss the University’s financial relationship with the Elm City. At the meeting — the first of its kind since 1937 — Yale administrators acknowledged that tax exemption poses a legitimate financial problem for New Haven and Guida urged the institution to “recognize [its] responsibilities to the urban center in which [it is] located.”
Parker, the overwhelming Yale student favorite in the primary, endorsed Capra. The Republican hopeful called on young people, including Yale students, to make their voices heard in the general election.
“The big question facing us at this moment is whether the [26th] amendment is merely a paper tiger — a bone thrown to the wind in the hopes it will go unused,” he said at a campaign rally. “The majority of legislators who passed this amendment are undoubtedly certain that youth will register and participate in no greater numbers than the majority of their elders, who are content to let the few do the job of the many.”
Ultimately, this call to action was not enough. Guida handily won the election by a margin of 5,815 votes, and the Democrats gained five seats on the Board of Alders. Fifteen minutes after polls closed, a disappointed Capra sighed and whispered, “They’re unbeatable.”
Guida would go on to serve another two terms as mayor until, in 1975, the New Haven Democratic machine took a hit with the election of reformist Frank Logue, who served as mayor of the Elm City from 1976 to 1979. Guida died by apparent suicide in 1978.
THE RIGHT TO VOTE, SECURED
Kennedy v. Meskill was finally closed on April 28, 1972 — 228 days after the initial ruling.
The same year, the Supreme Court ruled that durational residency requirements — like New Haven’s six-month requirement — violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. Six years later, the Supreme Court ruled that denying students the presumption of residency afforded to other prospective voters violates the Constitution.
This year marked the 24th mayoral primary in which Yale students were eligible to cast a ballot. In 1971, over 500 students attempted to become New Haven voters in the three days between the court’s initial ruling and the registration deadline for the fiercely contested primary election.
In contrast, a mere 106 people voted in Ward 1 last Tuesday for this year’s tight race between Mayor Toni Harp and progressive challenger Justin Elicker SOM ’10 FES ’10. Ward 1 is the only district which has an overwhelming Yale-student majority as it encompasses eight of Yale’s fourteen residential colleges, as well as Old Campus.
Yale students’ right to vote is the culmination of a hard-fought legal struggle. Nearly 50 years have passed since Rubin and Lecinger originally interviewed Yale students who were denied that right. Theirs was a simple idea: New Haven students are New Haven citizens.
Editor’s Note: Research for this article was primarily conducted via Yale Daily News and New Haven Register archives from 1971. News archives have been digitized and are published online through the Sterling Memorial Library. New Haven Register archives can be accessed on microfilm at the New Haven Free Public Library. Court records of Kennedy v. Meskill have been destroyed, but a limited docket is available via the Federal Records Center.