There are plenty of reasons for residents of Hudson to feel disempowered.
Some get disempowered by their elected officials, who display few qualms about ignoring both common sense and the voices of hundreds or even thousands of residents. Recent (non-) debates on the Community Garden, a proposed Dog Park, and the long-running Waterfront controversy are good examples of how insider conversations within the City Hall echo chamber trump popular sentiment.
Others disempower themselves, for example by failing to cultivate strong candidates, and allowing beatable incumbents to run unopposed… Or, by mounting half-baked or incompetent election campaigns.
The first group of disempowered people feels slighted. The second group slights itself, along with (mostly-) well-intentioned supporters.
It’s in this context that both groups of disempowered Hudsonians have latched onto the abstruse issue of Hudson’s weighted vote as a means of reforming City politics.
Hudson is said to be one of the last of “Small City” in New York State, and maybe even the nation, to retain an antiquated and recondite scheme for weighting Common Council votes in proportion to each Alderman’s ward population. (More usually, City Councils set forth districts with equal numbers of residents to achieve a one-rep-one-vote system.)
As a result, one huge Hudson Ward—the 5th—holds nearly 40% of all votes on the Council, effectively diluting the votes of other Aldermen. When the 5th Ward’s two Aldermen vote in tandem, they can carry most votes with the help of just one of their remaining nine colleagues.
Fix the weighted vote (the disempowered now hope) and Hudson’s electoral problems will magically go away. And thus a tremendous amount of energy lately has been put into calling for either redrawing the Ward map to better make the Ward populations more balanced, or even better, hold a Charter change referendum to switch over to one-rep-one-vote.
Those in favor of keeping the existing system self-servingly counter that the last time this was tried, the referendum was defeated, albeit narrowly. This camp conveniently ignores that the proposal roughly a decade ago was paired with an unpopular proposal to double the terms of the Mayor and Council President, muddying the weighted voting question.
Without question, the City’s weighted voting system has become lopsided, and its implementation appears to be sloppy at best. But that said: Those putting so much effort into agitating against the weighted vote in Hudson are ignoring the much bigger electoral problems in Hudson:
(1) Far fewer people are voting in today’s elections than a decade ago;
(2) The Democratic Committee is a shell of its former self, with little serious effort put into cultivating full slates of solid candidates;
(3) Progressive interests are not backed by smart, well-organized and well-funded campaigns.
The root problem is a disaffected electorate which has largely given up on participating in politics. Changing Hudson’s weighted voting system is a long-term procedural headache which few voters have either the interest or the patience to follow. Few are ever going to spend the time necessary to get their minds around the Banzhaf Power Index, nor should they have to. Moreover, the weighted voting system itself does not effect the election of either the Mayor or the Council President, which are by far the two most influential elected positions in town.
Still more crucially: In a small community like Hudson, voters are far more motivated by hyper-local concerns, such as timely snow removal, getting the fetid storm drain on their corner flowing again, or fixing a huge pothole in the middle of their block, than by head-scratching referenda about the City Charter. Most voters could not even define the difference between the Charter and the Code, and nor should they really need to know that.
Instead, if the same intensity of effort that were put into direct electoral politics, problems with the weighted voting system would be minimized.
Rather than trying to explain a highly-technical Charter issue to an already uninterested electorate, effort would be better spent registering people to vote who are not already on the rolls. With voter participation down by about 35% over the past decade, registering just one voter per day between now and the next Citywide election in 2015 would make all the difference.
Instead of diverting energy into a long, complicated procedural argument, those seeking empowerment would do better to engage in direct, grassroots organizing. Start by creating a database of existing voters, identifying existing supporters, and drawing up lists of unregistered friends and neighbors to get on the voter rolls. Spend the next 3-5 months developing a strong slate of candidates. And then start early going door-to-door to present voters with palpable, real-world reasons to elect that slate.
Elect a better Mayor. Elect a better Council President. Challenge incumbents who have become more responsive to inside City Hall baseball than to the needs of the City. Or at least, focus on finally winning one of the two 5th Ward seats. Find a great candidate for 5th Ward alderman, and put everything into getting that person elected.
Such a victory alone would neutralize the weighted vote issue by dividing the 5th Ward’s lopsided vote in half, thus empowering the remaining members of the Council.
And then there might even be enough votes to fix the weighted voting system.