Increase Voter Turnout in Ferguson

by John Fund
Left and Right agree: We can increase civic engagement by holding elections when voters are most likely to show up.

I’m always looking for areas where the Left and the Right can agree on a policy reform, even if it is for different reasons. One has emerged from the tragedy of Ferguson, Mo. In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting, many blamed some portion of the tension there on the striking racial gap between the police force, which is 94 percent white, and Ferguson’s African-American population, which makes up two-thirds of the city. Not only the police force but also the rest of the local power structure in Ferguson is dominated by whites.

Ferguson has seen enormous demographic change in the last 20 years, with the percentage of its black population growing from 25 percent to 67 percent. But five of its six city council members are still white, as is the mayor. The school board has six white members and one Hispanic.

One reason for the disparity is that, like many cities, Ferguson holds stand-alone elections for local offices in the spring of odd-numbered years when nothing else is on the ballot. Voter turnout is abysmal — 7 percent of black voters compared with 17 percent of white voters. By way of contrast, 54 percent of blacks and 55 percent of whites voted in the 2012 presidential election in Ferguson.

Existing power structures like this arrangement because it greatly favors incumbents, who can continue to dominate local bodies despite demographic change. Jeff Smith, a former Democratic state senator in Missouri who now teaches urban policy, writes that “overwhelmingly white-constituent unions (plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, sprinkler fitters) have benefited from these arrangements” and that these unions operate potent voter-turnout machines that overwhelm black challengers. “The more municipal contracts an organization receives, the more generously it can fund reelection campaigns. Construction, waste, and other long-term contracts with private firms have traditionally excluded blacks from the ownership side, and, usually, the work force as well.”

Low voter turnout for off-year local elections is a problem nationwide. In Los Angeles, fewer than 12 percent of voters participated in the recent race for mayor. Policy reformers and racial minorities are among those hurt by the perpetuation of this incumbent-friendly status quo. Public-sector unions have become political powerhouses and have used the forced collection of union dues to finance candidates who in turn grant them generous pay and pension benefits. The politicians they help elect play the role of “management” in deciding issues of compensation, benefits, and work rules. “We elect our bosses, so we’ve got to elect politicians who support us,” the website of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees proudly states.

Daniel DiSalvo, a political scientist at the City University of New York, concludes that this results in a vicious circle. He told me:

Unions extract dues from their members and funnel them into politicians’ campaigns, then those same politicians agree to generous contracts for public workers — which in turn leads to more union dues, more campaign spending, and so on. It is a cycle that has dominated the politics of some of America’s states, with dire consequences.

Education reform in California has long been stymied by the 325,000-member-strong California Teachers Association, which has spent north of $200 million on political campaigns over the last decade. “By following the union’s directions and voting in blocs in low-turnout school elections, teachers were able to handpick their own supervisors,” noted Troy Senik in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

No one is suggesting that rescheduling the dates of local elections would result in massive reform or that it should substitute for other reforms such as economic development or the kind of curbs on the political use of union dues that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has pushed through.

But shouldn’t we hold elections when people are more likely to show up and dilute the outside influence of long-time incumbents and unions? Clint Bolick, a libertarian constitutional scholar and author of the book Grassroots Tyranny: The Limits of Federalism, thinks so. He writes:

Everyone pays attention to national politics, yet most people ignore what is going on closer to home. Yet local government is smaller, it is easier to manipulate. And local government touches the most intimate aspects of our lives, from the schools our kids attend to police and fire to how we can use our property. Because local government is smaller, it is much easier for special-interest groups to manipulate.

Liberals now have a reason to join conservatives in supporting a reformed election calendar. As Ian Millhiser of the liberal ThinkProgress website puts it: “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.”

There isn’t anything sacrosanct about holding city or local elections at odd times when nothing else is on the ballot. Baltimore will move toward holding its race for mayor at the same time it votes for president in 2016. In California, cities ranging from San Francisco to San Diego have moved their voting to November elections in even-numbered years.

“A lack of civic engagement in California is one reason government works so badly here,” columnist Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee recently told me. “A more broadly based electorate in local elections that represents the general interest just might help mitigate that trend.”

— John Fund is national affairs columnist for NRO.