Black Turnout Matters

A city council election in Ferguson tests whether organizers can channel the passion of the protests into change at the polls.

A volunteer canvasses for votes ahead of the Ferguson, Missouri, municipal election. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

"This is what democracy looks like!" protestors chanted in the streets of Ferguson last fall. On Tuesday, they'll have another chance to show what it looks like, with three seats on the city council up for grabs.

The idea that the city government didn't speak for the mostly black population was a defining complaint of the protestors who took to the streets after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in August. The election offers a chance to rebalance. Of the six current council members plus the mayor, there's only a single black official—even though the population is two-thirds African American. During the protests, the lopsided voting patterns and voter-registration numbers became a central question, and organizers scrambled to turn popular anger over the shooting of Michael Brown into a bigger base of voters who could change policy in the long term. Tuesday's elections will offer some indication of how successful organizers have been in turning anger into the streets into action at the ballot box.

Ferguson is already in flux. Following the March release of the Justice Department's damning report on policing in the city, the city manager, police chief, court clerk, and municipal judge all resigned. The city will have to make further changes or risk direct intervention by the attorney general. But can it change itself without outside pressure, too?

All three seats are open because three members—all white—opted not to run again. As The New York Times noted in March, it's not a job anyone would take for the fun of it: Members receive just $250 per month, and they're contending with a town riven with racial conflicts; needing to rebuild after damage from riots; in need of a city manager and police chief; and forced to deal with the atrocious problems detailed by the Department of Justice. Terms last three years.

Still, eight people are vying for the seats. There are two black and two white candidates in Ward 1, two white candidates in Ward 2, and two black candidates in Ward 3, so the council is guaranteed to add at least one black member. Of course, the political currents don't cut cleanly along racial lines, and the office seekers are a mix of reformers and the old guard. The Ward 2 contest, for example, pits former Mayor Brian Fletcher against Bob Hudgins, a white man who was active in the protests and has campaigned on police reform.

Campaigners noted how little muscle black voters have flexed at the polls in Ferguson. Some experts blamed low registration on a transient population—because the city's demographics have changed quickly, many of the black residents are new to town.

But the gap between the number of residents eligible to vote and those who are registered is not that large—perhaps less than 1,500 people. Attempts to seriously change the composition of the registered electorate have been conspicuously unsuccessful. Registration drives since Michael Brown's death in August 2013 produced a grand total of 562 new voters, which makes for just a 4 percent increase, and is apparently similar to what other surrounding cities have seen. (The St. Louis County elections director said in October that 3,000 people had registered, only to correct those figures radically downward.)

That means turnout is really what matters. In 2013, the turnout rate was just 17 percent among white voters and 6 percent among black voters. One reason for the small number of voters is the fact that elections are held in April on odd-numbered years. That's been shown to seriously depress turnout, compared to November in a presidential year, or even to November in midterm years. Turnout topped 40 percent during November's midterm elections, but that also represented a 10 percent drop from 2010. But in 2012, 76 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, almost 20 points above the national average (and Barack Obama thrashed Mitt Romney, taking 85 percent of the vote).

The city council actually came off better than many parts of Ferguson's government in the Justice Department report. In August 2013, an unnamed member complained about the lack of a community-service option for offenders who couldn't afford fines. A year earlier, a member wrote to city officials arguing against reappointing a municipal judge who later resigned after being criticized in the report.

If Ferguson's citizens want to change the way the city is governed, though, this election is their best chance to exert influence in a democratic way. Political will is only likely to diminish as time passes since Brown's death. That makes Tuesday a crucial test in whether Ferguson can change by democratic politics or only when the federal government demands it.