Next week, Ferguson residents have the opportunity to vote for three city council members and alter the racial makeup of local government. To do that, they’ll have to clear one major hurdle: historically low voter turnout among the city’s African American majority.
Today, five of the six standing council members who represent the city’s three wards are white, while 67 percent of Ferguson’s population is African American. Three of the five are stepping down, and four candidates vying for the positions are black (Ella Jones, Adrienne Hawkins, Wesley Bell, and Lee Smith). Due to the ward breakdown, only two black contenders can be elected, although such a victory would secure half of the council seats and triple African American representation in the office. According to Fusion, the city has only elected two black council members in the past, including Mr. Dwayne T. James, who represents Ward 2.
But to shake up the predominately white government, black voters actually have to show up at the polls — something they don’t usually do in the small municipality. During the last municipal election in 2013, only 6 percent of eligible black voters cast a ballot. After Michael Brown was killed, many believed voter registration would skyrocket ahead of the St. Louis County executive election, but those hopes were shot when Director of Elections Rita Heard Days erroneously claimed that 3,300 people registered in the weeks after Brown’s death. In actuality, 128 people did so.
Several factors explain why so few African Americans vote in Ferguson. For example, city council elections occur in odd-numbered years, meaning they don’t align with presidential, gubernatorial, or state legislative elections. With an absence of big names on the ballot, voters aren’t drawn to the polls en masse on municipal election days. The black population is also younger than the white population, and older people tend to vote. Additionally, homeowners with lasting ties to the community are usually more inclined to vote, but most of Ferguson’s black voters are renters who haven’t lived in the city for long periods of time.
Nevertheless, organizers in the area strongly believe that next week’s elections will be different, because of the virtues and failures of the candidates on the ballot.
In case the prospect of altering the racial makeup of the city council isn’t enough, a coalition of community organizations, including the Organization of Black Struggle (OBS), Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), SEIU Missouri State Council, and the Working Families Party, identified two contenders — Lee Smith and Bob Hudgins — who, they believe, have ‘black lives matter’ in mind. Hudgins, a white man, was in the streets protesting last summer and repeatedly vocalized discontent with local law enforcement. In light of the DOJ report on racially discriminatory law enforcement, both candidates support OBS’ Quality Policing Initiative, which asks officers to consult Ferguson residents and city officials on matters of recruitment, training, deployment, accountability, and advancement.
MORE activist Reginald Rounds told ThinkProgress, “[Smith] and [Hudgins] were the two candidates who really had a vision for making it right and ensuring that our justice system is about keeping out communities safe, not criminalizing people and turning communities into ATM machines.”
In contrast, several candidates say the DOJ’s report on Ferguson’s law enforcement was overblown. Hudgins’ Ward 2 opponent, former Mayor Brian Fletcher, said the report was an example of ‘political correctness gone astray.’ On his campaign website, Doyle McClellan of Ward 1 claims the report used unsubstantiated stories and flawed statistics. Mike McGrath of Ward 1 also complained that the DOJ targeted law enforcement when it couldn’t implicate Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death. “If you’re the guy pushing the guy to the hall of fame,” he said during an official debate, “you’re going to use the statistics that’s going to make him look like the best basketball player ever, and that’s what the report did.”
With two strong candidates, coalition stakeholders are out in full force, phone banking, sending mailers, and knocking on doors. Their goal is to impart to the community that residents have the power to change the status quo.
“In order to be motivated to vote, people have to have something to vote for,” Rounds said. “That’s why we’re so glad to be supporting candidates who really want to fix Ferguson and make our justice system work for all of us.”