Ferguson Is Having an Election, but Will Ferguson Vote?

A city plagued by racial discrimination and low voter turnout hopes to turn over a new leaf on both after only 6 percent of eligible African-American voters cast a ballot in 2012.

Scott Olson

“When people on the left get mad, they march. When people on the right get mad, they vote. From the standpoint of influencing government, voting beats marching,” said former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank during a TV interview March 28.  

In that interview, Frank was talking about the Occupy movement, but the sentiment could easily apply to what goes on in Ferguson, Mo., Tuesday, when the city holds its municipal elections.

In a city where the last election only brought out 6 percent of eligible African Americans, turnout is the difference between change and more of the same.

“I attach tremendous significance to this election. This is the first election post-Mike Brown, and my opponent does not court African Americans at all, and that’s two-thirds of the people in this ward,” Ferguson city council candidate Bob Hudgins told The Root Thursday.  

Asked if he thought there would be an uptick in turnout Tuesday, Hudgins said, “There has to be. A year ago it was 12 percent in this ward. If it’s 12 percent on Tuesday, I will lose.”

There was a lot of talk about registering voters after several weeks of protests last year following the police shooting death of Michael Brown, but results have been tepid. According to one report, only 128 new voters were registered by October 2014, after almost three months of demonstrations. Many young protesters are pushing for change through other means. 

The Department of Justice’s report on racial discrimination in Ferguson has already resulted in the resignations of Ferguson’s police chief, city manager and a municipal judge.

Historically, Ferguson has had very low voter turnout, leading to a majority-white city government where the mayor, City Council and police chief are white, as well as 94 percent of the police force. The weak turnout has been blamed on everything from how municipal elections are held on odd years instead of the even years of congressional and presidential elections to the transient nature of the city’s black population.

Over the last two months, more than 100 college students have been in Ferguson donating time to get-out-the-vote efforts, voter education and registration work in Ferguson. Candidates running on platforms that reflect the concerns of protesters are hoping that the same people who turned out to march will turn out at the polls.

Only three African Americans have run for the Ferguson City Council in the past 120 years, despite the fact that the city has grown more and more African American. Ferguson is currently 67 percent black. Looking to change this, on Tuesday, four African Americans are running for the council in Ferguson’s three wards.