A campaign is under way to register voters in the Missouri county where the fatal police shooting of a black teenager sparked violent protests -- and where turnout in the most recent election was 12 percent.
The motto of the effort by the St. Louis County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: “Mike Brown can’t vote, but I can.”
The Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson led to protests and civil unrest while becoming a symbol of racial inequality and heavy-handed police tactics. The city of 21,000 is almost 70 percent black, yet only one councilman and three of 53 police officers are black. In Ferguson, as in other U.S. communities where civic participation is low, the events surrounding Brown’s shooting show that change starts with people understanding why they must be involved, said John Gaskin III of the St. Louis County NAACP.
“This has been a real wake-up call to many, because many didn’t even know who the mayor was,” Gaskin, an NAACP national board member, said in a telephone interview. “But I bet you they know who he is now.”
Distortions in representation, such as in Ferguson, became less common after the 1965 Voting Rights Act enfranchised millions of blacks in the South who had been barred from voting by poll taxes and other Jim Crow laws, said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida in Gainesville who studies voter turnout.
Where there are racial imbalances in governance, part of the reason is that voters tend to participate less in municipal elections than in presidential races -- even though local officials make decisions that affect their daily lives, McDonald said.
“We have a real problem with participation in local governance,” he said. “If people really want to have a greater say in what happens in their communities, they should, at the very least, start by voting.”
Turnout typically correlates with levels of education and income, age and how competitive races are, McDonald said.
In Ferguson, the poverty rate has doubled since 2000, and its median income of $37,500 trailed the state level of $47,300 in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Adult blacks in the city on average are less-educated and younger than whites, meaning they’re more transient and less likely to get involved, said Terry Jones, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Voter turnout in the past three city elections was 12.3 percent, 11.7 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively, according to the St. Louis County Elections Board. There have been few black candidates, even as white elected officials tried to recruit them, Jones said.
“Some of y’all that’s mad right now weren’t mad three weeks ago for Election Day,” civil-rights activist Al Sharpton said at an Aug. 17 rally in Ferguson. “Y’all got to start voting and showing up. Twelve percent turnout is an insult to your children.”
Besides a lack of voter participation, the dramatic demographic transition in Ferguson has outpaced change in the political structure, said Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City who has mapped the shifts in the region.
While less than 1 percent of the city’s population was black in 1970, that number increased to 25 percent in 1990 and more the doubled to 67 percent in 2010, Census data show.
Lakresha Moore, a 34-year-old mother and student who lives in Ferguson, said she hopes the killing of Brown will provoke the city’s black population to vote and run for public office.
“We’re tired of being bullied,” Moore said in an interview. “This whole system is ridiculous, and the only way we’re going to change it is to vote.”
The system can change, said Wanda Fairley, one of four blacks on the six-member board of aldermen in the St. Louis County suburb of Vinita Park, a community of 1,900 that’s about 65 percent black.
Fairley, 60, won her first try at elective office in 2009, defeating a white incumbent, she said. The town’s first black mayor won office in 2010.
“You’ve got to vote,” Fairley said. “You’ve got to go to the meetings. You’ve got to be heard.”
There are dozens of examples of U.S. cities gaining more diverse representation and becoming more responsive to minorities, expanding their opportunities for jobs, better services and influence in decisions such as who is named police chief, said Ravi Perry, an assistant political science professor at Mississippi State University in Starkville.
“When you don’t have a real commitment to what you might call racial equity, then you have situations like Ferguson that are really kind of just waiting to happen,” Perry said.
Even so, good representation doesn’t depend on race, said Perry, who has written about black mayors elected by white majorities. There also have been white mayors elected by black majorities recently, such as Mike Duggan in Detroit last year.
The goal of the NAACP campaign is to register about 2,000 voters by October. It’s heavily focused on Ferguson and those younger than 45 who tend not to vote, said Gaskin. After Brown’s shooting, it’s also to educate them, he said.
“It’s our responsibility as a community to know what’s going on, and I believe that this could be the tipping point for that,” he said.