If you compared the racial makeup of Ferguson, Missouri’s population as a whole to that of its government, it would be easy to mistake the city for an enclave of Jim Crow. Although nearly 70 percent of Ferguson is black, 50 of its 53 police officers are white. So are five of Ferguson’s six city council members. The mayor, James Knowles, is a white Republican.
Ferguson can help ensure that its leaders more closely resemble its population, however. They just need to hold their elections at a time when voters are actually likely to show up.
To explain, a major contributor to the disparity between Ferguson’s population demographics and that of its leaders is Ferguson’s unusual elections calendar. Under the Ferguson City Charter, “[t]he regular city election shall be held annually on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in April,” and these elections are held in odd-numbered years. Thus, Ferguson chooses its leadership at a time when there is no state or national-level general election, and it is unlikely that there are even any major primary candidates on the ballot. Missouri, like the federal government, holds its gubernatorial and state legislative elections in even-numbered years.
The fact that Ferguson’s elections are held at a time when few, if any, high-profile candidates are on the ballot contributes to an almost comically low voter turnout rate in these elections. In 2013, for example, just 11.7 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot.
Turnout is especially low among Ferguson’s African American residents, however. In 2013, for example, just 6 percent of eligible black voters cast a ballot in Ferguson’s municipal elections, as compared to 17 percent of white voters.
As Zachary Roth explains, there are a number of reasons for this disparity. Ferguson’s white population tends to be older than its black population, and older voters tend to turnout at higher rates than younger voters. Similarly, Ferguson’s black residents are less likely to have longstanding roots in the community, and are more likely to rent than to own their homes. Both home ownership and longstanding residence correlate with higher voter turnout.
Diminished turnout, however, appears to be a much greater problem in Ferguson’s municipal elections than it is in presidential elections. Though Ferguson’s whites turned-out at nearly three times the rate of African Americans in 2013, black turnout during the 2012 presidential election was almost equal to that of white turnout. Fifty-four percent of Ferguson’s African American voters turned out in November of 2012, as opposed to 55 percent of whites. Admittedly, 2012 may have been an unusually high year for African American turnout in Ferguson, given President Obama’s presence on the ballot, but even if black turnout typically fell 20 points behind white turnout in a presidential year, that would still be better than the 3 to 1 disparity during the April municipal elections.
So the solution to the fact that Ferguson’s black majority is nearly unrepresented in its government could be as simple as rescheduling its municipal elections so that they are held in November of even-numbered years — the same time that federal elections are held. Ferguson’s City Charter can be amended through a ballot measure initiated by the city’s voters. Under that Charter, “[a]mendments may also be proposed by the council or by initiative petition of not less than ten percent of the registered qualified voters of the city, filed with the clerk, setting forth the proposed amendment.” Once a proposed amendment is submitted along with the required signatures, “[t]he council shall at once provide by ordinance that any amendment so proposed shall be submitted to the voters at the next election held in the city not less than sixty days after its passage, or at a special election held as provided by the constitution and law of the state for a charter.”
If the residents of Ferguson wish to amend their charter to give the city’s African American majority a greater voice in government, they could start collecting signatures now at a time when the town’s black residents are particularly aware of the shortcomings of their local government. Absent a special election, that would allow Ferguson’s residents to vote on the amendment next April, at a time when black turnout is likely to be higher than it usually is due to lingering concerns over the Brown shooting. And, should the amendment pass, the next municipal election would then be held in November of 2016, during a presidential election when far more of Ferguson’s residents are likely to turn out then in the off-year April elections of the past.
Thus, through a simple rescheduling measure, Ferguson’s black residents could permanently reshape their city’s electoral landscape so that its leaders are chosen by an electorate that more closely resembles Ferguson as a whole — rather than allowing them to be chosen by a tiny, overwhelmingly white group of voters.