In 2004, P. Diddy jumped into politics with his loud,over-the-top “Vote or Die” youth voting campaign. Citizen Change (the organization behind the campaign) hung around for one election cycle, but after racking up more expenses and press than actual registered voters, the initiative unceremoniously died in 2006. Back when South Park was relevant, they did a great parody video of the entire campaign (and Diddy’s Hype Williams style videos) pointing out that when you encourage civic action with false choices and extreme examples the whole thing loses credibility with the public. Vote or die? So if I don’t vote…the alternative is death? Nobody’s buying that.
Yet in the wake of the Mike Brown shooting, there have been a large number of writers and activists coming just short of that conclusion. Tons of ink has been spilled pointing out low voter turnout in the majority black 3rd Ward of Ferguson Missouri, and how that lack of civic action may have indirectly led to Brown’s death. There are political problems for sure in Ferguson, Missouri, but they don’t really have to do with voting or turnout among the city’s African American population. African Americans could turn out at 100% in Ferguson but it wouldn’t change the fact that the city’s political problems begin and end with the basic kernel of all political action: Candidates.
The basic government structure of Ferguson has been picked over by just about every newspaper and media outlet in the country. You’d think there was going to be a national quiz on St. Louis county municipalities at the end of the month. Unfortunately the basics of Ferguson township don’t really tell the story or reveal the environment that leads to the shooting death of an 18-year-old boy by an overly aggressive cop. As of the 2010 census, Ferguson has 21,203 residents; 66% are black and about 30% of them are registered to vote. Ferguson has three wards, that elect two city council members a piece in elections every other spring. Turnout in the last three municipal elections city wide among all demographic groups was 12.3%, 11.7% and 8.9% respectively.
Pretty lousy right? Cue commentary about how African Americans died to earn the right to vote. However contextually, those aren’t bad turnout numbers for municipal elections. In Los Angeles County turnout for municipal elections is usually around 12% as well, but there is much greater representation of Blacks, Latinos and Asians in city government.
The problem isn’t voting; the problem is candidates. I spoke with Brian Fletcher, a portly White man in his 50’s who served as the mayor of Ferguson from 2005-2011, after severing in various other government capacities for years. Fletcher is a proud Democrat, founder of the post-shooting “I Love Ferguson” campaign and considers himself to be more progressive than most. I asked him about the history of minorities on city council in Ferguson.
“We on the council realized that there needed to be more representation” he told me while standing in front of the “I Love Ferguson” table covered in white signs and grey T-shirts. “So we talked to an African American gentleman by the name of James Hines. We went to James and said: We’ll support you, we want you to run from Ward 2, but you have to promise that you’ll run again for re-election.”
James Hines won his race but had a stroke soon afterwards and resigned from City Council. So in 2006 Fletcher and his allies drafted another African American candidate, Dwayne James, with the same offer and he’s been representing Ward 2 ever since. So in short, Ward 2, which has a White majority has elected two African American city council members in the last 8 years alone. Not bad right? What about Ward 3, where the majority of the city’s Black population lives, and where the Ferguson protests and riots have emanated from? Nothing. There has never been an African American city council representative from Ward 3. In fact, in 2007 no one even bothered to file to run for the vacant city council seat in Ward 3. Kynan Crecelius, a white software engineer decided to run for the seat as a write-in candidate after the filing deadline when he realized no one was on the ballot. Ward 3 has 3,064 registered voters, and Crecelius won his city council seat with 23 votes. Not 2,300, no 230; Twenty three votes; 2 and 3. No one else he ran against garnered more than 4 votes. He served one term then didn’t seek re-election and the two current city council members from Ward 3 are both White: retired veteran Keith Kalstrom and David Conway who doesn’t even have a biography on the city web page and can only be seen in snippets of pictures from Twitter like he’s the city council version of Big Foot.
I attended a meeting of African American leaders in the city hall of Normandy, a small town bordering Ferguson, and I asked a very basic question: “How is it that no Black person has ever even TRIED to run for city council from Ward 3?” I got blank stares. Everyone shook their heads because no one really had an answer. There are towns in America where 5-year-olds get elected mayor; the idea that there wasn’t ONE person in Ward 3, some older matriarch who wanted to give back, some college kid hoping to run for Congress someday, even a Ferguson version of Ben Wyatt, some high-school senior who wanted to become “Boy Mayor” – was disturbing.
It isn't racist voting laws, or public apathy about voting, that led to Mike Brown's death. Ferguson's Black residents lack proper representation in city government because of a lack of people willing to run and do the work of both engaging voters and serving them as elected officials.
Civic participation is not a pre-requisite for having your civil liberties and human rights respected by police. Officer Wilson didn’t check if Mike Brown had his voter registration card before chasing him down the street and firing at him 11 tines. Only about 17% of White voters are turning out in municipal elections as well, but the difference is they are developing candidates to run in the first place. I applaud efforts by both local and national organizations like 100 Black Men and Delta Sigma Theta, who are working to get new voters registered in Ferguson. But it is going to be the candidates, the men and women willing to knock on doors, attend boring meetings and speak on behalf of the community who will change this heartbroken community.
Black people could have 100% turnout in every municipal election but if there’s no one to vote for it won’t matter. Politics is not just about numbers and voting but about people. You can’t clean up the police, the mayor’s office and city council in one fell swoop. But Ferguson can’t even begin the process if no one is willing to step up and run.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio, director of the “Politics Of” education program and a frequent guest on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and Al Jazeera. Follow him on Twitter @DrJasonJohnson