How Ferguson’s Black Majority Can Take Control of Their City

Our analysis of the voting data shows that when only white people vote, only white people get elected.

Amaris Montes and Zack AvreNovember 3, 2014

As we approach the midterm elec­tions, many ana­lysts are sug­gest­ing that our usu­al­ly low midterm turnout — aver­ag­ing about 2 in 5 eli­gi­ble vot­ers in recent decades—may dip even low­er. That’s despite these elec­tions draw­ing more spend­ing than any midterm elec­tion in history.

Three-fifths of eligible voters in Ferguson—a super-majority—are under 50. Yet this demographic made up less than 20 percent of voters in the city’s municipal elections.

But the pic­ture is even worse in local elec­tions — not only in num­bers, but in equi­ty in demo­graph­ics such as age and race, rais­ing seri­ous ques­tions about the dis­en­gage­ment of a grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans from their munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments. Most local elec­tions in the Unit­ed States are held in odd years, apart from elec­tions for state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, often at times of the year that many peo­ple don’t asso­ciate with voting.

Take Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, where there is con­tin­ued unrest in the wake of Michael Brown’s shoot­ing by a police offi­cer. Only three out of 53 police offi­cers and one out of six coun­cil mem­bers are African Amer­i­can in the near­ly 70 per­cent black city. The dis­tort­ed make­up of the City Coun­cil and police force have led many to ask: Why does Ferguson’s city gov­ern­ment not reflect the city it represents?

Using L2’s VoterMap­ping soft­ware, we traced vot­er turnout in Fer­gu­son in all elec­tions since 2008, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to dis­par­i­ties among racial and age groups. Our find­ings con­firm that vot­ers in Ferguson’s elec­tions are sig­nif­i­cant­ly old­er and whiter than the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion elec­torate and adult population.

The prob­lem of an unrep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment starts with low over­all turnout in Fer­gu­son’s munic­i­pal elec­tions, which are held in April. Take a look at how Ferguson’s turnout in munic­i­pal elec­tions com­pares with oth­er elections.

Those who do turn out are high­ly unrep­re­sen­ta­tive of the com­mu­ni­ty. In the 2010 cen­sus, 2 in 3 res­i­dents of Fer­gu­son were African-Amer­i­can, yet they made up only about one-third of vot­ers in the past sev­en city elec­tions. White vot­ers made up over 50 per­cent of the elec­torate in local elec­tions over the same peri­od. The pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, while not pre­cise­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive, came clos­er, with only 38 per­cent white voters.

The dis­par­i­ty among age groups is even more strik­ing. Three-fifths of eli­gi­ble vot­ers in Fer­gu­son — a super-major­i­ty — are under 50. Yet this demo­graph­ic made up less than 20 per­cent of vot­ers in the city’s munic­i­pal elec­tions. Vot­ers ages 18 to 30, in par­tic­u­lar, are mere­ly 4 per­cent of the elec­torate in city elec­tions. That rep­re­sents a sixth of their share of the vot­ing age pop­u­la­tion and a third of their share of the pres­i­den­tial electorate.

Res­i­dents over 50, on the oth­er hand, make up a stag­ger­ing 80 per­cent of vot­ers in Ferguson’s local elec­tions We esti­mate that the medi­an age vot­er has been 63. Much atten­tion has been paid to the racial dis­par­i­ties in vot­er turnout, yet the issue of civic engage­ment and rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment is clear­ly a mat­ter of both race and age.

Dis­con­nects between com­mu­ni­ties and their local gov­ern­ments are not iso­lat­ed to Fer­gu­son. As part of a broad­er analy­sis of dis­tor­tions in elec­torates in local and pri­ma­ry elec­tions, we have found that local elec­tions skew heav­i­ly to old­er, whiter vot­ers. In Gainesville, Flori­da, for exam­ple, vot­ers under 30 make up more than a quar­ter of reg­is­tered vot­ers, yet only 6 per­cent of vot­ers in city elections.

The prob­lem of low and unrep­re­sen­ta­tive turnout in low-pro­file elec­tions is get­ting worse. The Cen­ter for the Study of Amer­i­can Elec­torate report­ed that of the first 25 states hold­ing pri­maries this year, 15 hit his­toric lows, with their over­all turnout bare­ly half of what it was in their 1966 pri­maries. Our analy­sis of munic­i­pal elec­tion turnout shows stag­ger­ing declines over the past decade, lead­ing to turnouts of less than 15 per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers in recent may­oral elec­tions in Dal­las, Hous­ton, Austin, Mia­mi, Bal­ti­more and Chapel Hill, North Car­oli­na and in sin­gle dig­its in El Paso and San Antonio.

To com­bat the turnout prob­lem, we must think sys­tem­i­cal­ly. The date of elec­tions is the eas­i­est fac­tor to change. Mov­ing munic­i­pal elec­tions to Novem­ber of even years to coin­cide with con­gres­sion­al elec­tions would lead to far high­er and more rep­re­sen­ta­tive turnout. Bet­ter civic edu­ca­tion should start in schools and extend to inno­v­a­tive vot­er guides. Ranked choice vot­ing would give vot­ers real choice and oppor­tu­ni­ties to win fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion address­ing the dis­il­lu­sion­ment and dis­con­nec­tion that con­tributes to low and inequitable turnout.

Every com­mu­ni­ty will have its own solu­tions, but it’s time to act. Such turnout dis­par­i­ties are sim­ply unac­cept­able — and as shown in Fer­gu­son, have real con­se­quences. Every sin­gle indi­vid­ual is affect­ed by the results of munic­i­pal elec­tions. When few­er than 1 in 5 peo­ple and even small­er shares of young adults and peo­ple of col­or decide who makes bud­gets, appoints police chief and man­ages schools, can we real­ly say we live in a fair democracy?

Fair­Vote exec­u­tive direc­tor Rob Richie assist­ed in this project.

Amaris Montes and Zack Avre are democ­ra­cy fel­lows work­ing on FairVote’s Pro­mote Our Vote project, which is designed to encour­age com­mu­ni­ty dia­logue and action to boost fair vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion and representation.
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