On Tuesday, voters in Ferguson, Missouri, went to the polls for the first time since the city revolted after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, last August.
The stakes in Ferguson’s election were extraordinarily high. With just over 21,000 residents, the majority black city has become a symbol of America’s racial strife: five of its six city council members were white, along with its mayor. A scathing U.S. Department of Justice report showed the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in every aspect of Ferguson’s civic life.
“I’m nervous because it’s raining,” Maria Chappelle-Nadel, a black Missouri state senator whose district includes Ferguson, told TakePart over the phone as she drove to her polling place. Still, the Democrat thought “people were motivated. They want change.”
The election’s results were telling: Two black candidates were among three people elected to the city council, thanks at least in part to nearly 30 percent voter turnout, according to CBS News. Ella M. Jones will be Ferguson’s first black female city councilwoman, while the second newly elected black councilmember, Wesley Bell, had the backing of several current members. The election tripled the African-American representation on the council. The New York Times points out that voters rejected several black candidates who had direct ties to protests that roiled the city last fall.
But there was also an inescapable sense of dread among people who hoped the city’s public protests would lead to civic action and, ultimately, dramatic political change. Only 12 percent of the city’s 14,700 eligible voters turned out for an election last April, Eric Fay, St. Louis County’s Director of Elections, told USA Today.
For Chappelle-Nadel, those low turnout numbers were indicative of how little faith people—especially the city’s black residents—had in the electoral process. “People weren’t engaged,” she said. “They didn’t understand that exercising their right to vote meant that they’d be treated one way or another.” When referring to Mike Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old whose killing by police galvanized the country, Chappelle-Nadel said “someone ended up getting killed because the wrong people were in a position of power.”
But whether or not electoral power can truly change the city’s racial inequities is a key point of contention among voters, according to local activists. “The question is whether the dialogue that’s resonated nationally has penetrated locally,” Montague Simmons, chair of the Organization for Black Struggle, a Ferguson-based activist group, told TakePart. “For people who’ve been activated in this moment, the hope is that everyone’s done the work and this is an opportunity to participate in democracy at a moment when all eyes are on this locale.”
While hopes loomed large in Ferguson because of its unique political situation, history was not exactly on the city’s side. Nationally, Americans have a terrible voting record when it comes to participating in local elections. Ferguson may have had a low voter turnout last year, but voter turnout nationwide during last year’s midterm elections was the lowest it’s been since WWII. In many ways, that’s to be expected: voter turnout during presidential elections is routinely higher than other years. But it’s repeatedly low turnout in local elections that’s most worrisome to close observers. Those are the votes that decide the composition and, arguably the operations, of local city governments—and, ultimately, policies that impact people’s lives. In a study of 340 mayoral elections in 144 cities between 1996 to 2012, researchers found that voter turnout was an average of just over 25 percent.
And it’s those local elections that could lead to more racially diverse political representation, according to experts.
“If we could increase local turnout, we might eliminate almost one quarter of the underrepresentation of Latinos and Asian Americans on city councils across the country,” Zoltan L. Hajnal, author of the book “America’s Uneven Democracy,” wrote recently in the Washington Post.
For Simmons, the activist, this week’s elections are the beginning of political change, not necessarily the result of it. “Power will be determined by folks who live in these spaces,” he said about the vote.
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Original article from TakePart