The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Ferguson exposes the racial bias in local elections

Tirezz Walker, a resident of Ferguson, speaks to Missouri Highway Patrol officers in riot gear during a protest of the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, outside Ferguson Police Department Headquarters August 11, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Civil unrest broke out as a result of the shooting of the unarmed black man as crowds looted and burned stores, vandalized vehicles and taunted police officers. Dozens were arrested for various infractions including assault, burglary and theft. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
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The conflict in Ferguson, Mo., has captured the nation’s attention and once again put race front and center in American politics. This piece, for instance, notes that while Ferguson is 67 percent black, five of the six council members and the mayor are all white. Why this disparity? There are two culprits: the timing of municipal elections and the nature of the ballot in these elections.

Ferguson holds municipal elections in April of odd-numbered years. In doing so, the town is hardly unique. Approximately three-fourths of American municipalities hold their elections in odd years, a Progressive-era reform intended to shield municipal elections from the partisan politics of national contests, but one that has been shown to have a dramatic effect on reducing turnout.

Ferguson also holds nonpartisan elections (where party labels do not appear on the ballot), another Progressive reform, and one that has been shown to reduce both what citizens know about candidates as well as their likelihood of voting. These consequences are worse for people with less education and less income.

Two charts tell the story of why Ferguson’s elected officials look so little like its population. The charts based on data from Catalist, which maintains a database of information about American adults based on state voter files and other databases.  Although Missouri itself does not track the race of voters, Catalist has developed an algorithm based on an individual’s name, age, and geographic location that predicts the race of the individual.

The first chart shows turnout rates among African Americans and whites in Ferguson for both the 2012 general election in November and the 2013 municipal election in April. In 2012, African Americans and whites turned out in nearly identical numbers (54 percent and 55 percent, respectively). In the April 2013 municipal election, turnout was dramatically lower among both groups, but whites were three times more likely to vote than African Americans.

The second chart shows the consequences of this differential turnout for the composition of the Ferguson electorate.

In 2012, when turnout was high and African Americans voted at a similar rate to whites, 71 percent of Ferguson voters were black. However, in 2013, whites became a majority of the Ferguson electorate, by a margin of 52 percent-47 percent. This is a dramatic difference, and it would almost certainly help to account for the extent to which Ferguson’s elected officials are of a much different racial makeup than its population.

More broadly, the electoral politics if Ferguson point to broader discrepancies in representation in local elections across the United States — ones that might improve if these elections were held in even-numbered years.