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An outline of the voting precincts in St. Louis County marked
Ferguson's voting precincts in St. Louis County. These precincts went 83 percent for Obama in 2008.

A consistent subplot to the horrors in Ferguson over the past week has been a consistent sense of wonder at how a city that has, over the past two decades, become a majority-black community could have a white mayor, a majority-white city council, and an almost universally white police force.

That wonder emanates from two simple facts: the city's population is more than two-thirds African American, and the voting precincts that make up the greater Ferguson area are overwhelmingly black and Democratic. And yet the political power structure in the city is white, and the mayor is not only white, he is a Republican.

As two must-read articles (one by Ian Millhiser of Think Progress, the other by Jeff Smith in the New York Times) affirm, the answer, in part, is electoral politics.

It would not be a stretch to say that municipal elections, in no small part, are rigged. Not in the classic "stolen election" sense, of course, but rigged in the sense that a number of factors, chief among them their scheduling, of all things, ensure that political change comes to communities at a snail's pace, if at all.

Please read more on this story below the fold.

As Millhiser writes:

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.

The only flaw in Millhiser's spot-on lede is that Ferguson is not actually all that unusual.

Most municipalities hold their elections apart from the "traditional" electoral calendar for state and federal elections. As an example, here in my backyard, the LA city mayoral calendar saw Democrat Eric Garcetti elected in May of 2013. Some municipalities make a slight bow to tradition, holding their elections in November, but insisting on holding them in those odd-numbered years where there are no competing state or federal elections in all but a handful of states.

On the surface, it makes little sense. After all, with most cities and communities perpetually cash strapped, what is the acceptable rationale for deciding to schedule elections in such a way that it incurs the expense of an additional and separate election? Costs will, of course, vary with size (as one representative example, the Arizona city of Prescott, with only about 25,000 registered voters, spends about $65,000 to administer their elections). So, why would these municipalities willingly hang onto a schedule that requires them to fund more elections than absolutely necessary?

The answer, as Jeff Smith is quick to point out, is power and money:

Many North County towns — and inner-ring suburbs nationally — resemble Ferguson. Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate the City Councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies.
By leaving municipal elections as stand-alone dates, these communities ensure that their own municipal elections are stunningly low turnout affairs. As Millhiser noted, turnout in Ferguson in the last municipal elections was a putrid 11.7 percent of registered voters. This is not unique to Ferguson: last year's spate of municipal elections in my home county of Los Angeles drew 11.9 percent of registered voters to the polls.

In low turnout affairs, allies of the incumbent power structure have an inherent edge because they have a vested interest (and financial resources, courtesy of those patronage jobs and city contracts) in preserving the community political hierarchy. Therefore, they can swamp any upstart candidates financially, leaving the existing structure in place.

What's more, as Millhiser noted, the disparity between municipal turnout and, say, presidential turnout had a clear racial component to it, as well:

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.


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.

The two authors actually prescribe quite different remedies for this phenomenon. Millhiser suggests a referendum changing the electoral calendar, while Smith advocates for municipal consolidation of these stagnant or declining inner ring suburban cities to change the electoral calculus. Either method would be preferable, of course, to a status quo that it must be argued is at least a contributory factor to the horrors we have witnessed in St. Louis County over the past week.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 10:42 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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