Dutchess County political figures illuminate voting issues

Former New York Gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins spoke to Vassar students on Mar. 1 as part of a panel discussing concerns regarding accessibility and engagement in regional politics. Photo By: WRVO
Former New York Gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins spoke to Vassar students on Mar. 1 as part of a panel discussing concerns regarding accessibility and engagement in regional politics. Photo By: WRVO
Former New York Gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins spoke to Vassar students on Mar. 1 as part of a panel discussing concerns regarding accessibility and engagement in regional politics. Photo By: WRVO

On Sunday Mar. 1, Vassar’s chapter of Democracy Matters invited several local political figures to speak to members of the Vassar community and Poughkeepsie residents about the issues related to electioneering and voter registration, topics of serious national debate in recent years due to the consistent contesting of student votes in the Hudson Valley.

Speakers included Director of the Dutchess County League of Women Voters Dare Thompson, member of the Green party and former candidate for the recent New York Gubernatorial election Howie Hawkins and Dutchess County legislator Joel Tyner. The panel viewed and discussed the need for change in the local electoral system in regards to voter registration in order to create more open, and thus more democratic, elections.

“[W]e wanted to get perspective from all levels of the political process (local and statewide) as well as from a non-partisan entity/political observer,” President of the Vassar chapter of Democracy Matters Adam Eichen ’15 commented in an emailed statement. “We thought that having a couple politicians would be worthwhile, as they can provide an insider’s perspective and having someone from the League of Women Voters would be an excellent counter to any partisanship.”

As a student organization tasked with fostering greater democratization of the American political system, the Vassar chapter of Democracy Matters invited these three speakers to campus in order to benefit from their unique perspectives on voting issues at the local level. Particular emphasis was placed on the importance of keeping large amounts of money out of politics, which tends to rig elections in favor of certain candidates.

Among the issues discussed was that of proportional representation, an electoral system that panelists felt most accurately reflects constituencies and improves general voter registration for students and residents of Dutchess County. Speaking at the panel, Hawkins touched on possible ways to combat this development. He said, “It’s really hard to gerrymander a proportional system.”

Hawkins has long been a critic of the current system of political representation and, he noted, uses his website as a method of informing potential supporters and other voters to discuss his beliefs on appropriate forms of electoral representation.

He remarked, “Replace the two-party system of corporate rule with multi-party democracy. End single-member-district, winner-take-all system that creates one-party district and a two-party legislature. Adopt proportional representation for the state Assembly and Senate in order to give every party legislative representation in proportion to the vote it receives.”

Eichen remarked, “If Vassar students chose to show up for some of these issues, then we really can actually change things.” He added, “Every year you have to re register to vote at Vassar because there are three different districts.”

Eichen mentioned, “The registration process is difficult in Dutchess County, especially for Vassar students.” He explained the way in which voting districts work on campus, which essentially have been gerrymandered. The school is divided into three different voting wards based on which dorm a student lives in, which Democracy Matters considers to be suspect from a non-partisan perspective, and some believe results in the suppression of the student vote.

A common theme at the panel was the importance of students as a voting block. Discussed by the speakers was the possibility of incorporating Vassar into a singular district, which would make the student vote more vocal and organized. It seems to be the case that the current voting districts, drawn up by an outside consultant, hinder Vassar’s participation in the electoral process rather than encourage it.

Eichen said, “If you stay within the same dorm, it’s ambiguous, but certainly if you move from say Joss to Noyes, then you actually have to sign an affidavit because you’d actually be going to different voting places.”

As a possible solution to many of these problems, instant runoff voting was a prominent topic at the panel. Essentially, this refers to a preferential voting system in which people are allowed to select multiple candidates, ranked in order of preference. If enough votes do not accrue to a voter’s first-choice candidate such that there is a possibility of victory, then the vote moves on to the next candidate.

Tyner emphasized the value of such a system, which he feels would improve the state of democracy especially at the local level. Speaking at the panel, Tyner said, “There is just so much cynicism and apathy.” He added, “So just have hope.” At the event, he announced his new Change.org petition, which he encouraged Vassar students interested in making changes to sign. He will be circulating it online as well as on campus for those who wish to see an instant runoff voting system implemented in Dutchess County.

Thompson, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters said, “redistricting has made the elections a foregone conclusion.” She added, “The most effective thing you can do is get to know the people who represent you. You can be a part of your government.” As issues of democratization continue to gain notoriety around Vassar, her remarks and indeed those of all the panelists conveyed a positive message of hope and progress for the American political system.

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