FERGUSON, Mo. – Down the street from where the body of Michael Brown lay for hours after he was shot three weeks ago, volunteers have appeared beside folding tables under fierce sunshine to sign up new voters. On West Florissant Avenue, the site of sometimes violent nighttime protests for two weeks, voter-registration tents popped up during the day and figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson lectured about the power of the vote.
In this small city, which is two-thirds African-American but has mostly white elected leaders, only 12 percent of registered voters took part in the last municipal election, and political experts say black turnout was very likely lower. But now, in the wake of the killing of Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white Ferguson police officer, there is a new focus on promoting the power of the vote, an attempt to revive one of the keystones of the civil rights movement.
“A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected,” said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferguson with her mother and has pledged to come back here each Saturday. “The prosecutor – he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council – they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”
NAACP leaders are creating a door-to-door voter registration effort with a jarring reminder as its theme: “Mike Brown Can’t Vote, but I Can.” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is working with others to hold a “candidate school” for people, including young black residents who say they want to serve on a city council or school board but need guidance on what a political campaign requires.
The attempt to galvanize voting comes against a backdrop of intense political struggles over the ballot in the state. In 2000, polls were kept open late in St. Louis because of long lines, and Republicans complained about possible voter fraud – one chapter in what would be a long battle over elections and voting.
Republican lawmakers, who dominate the Missouri Legislature, have repeatedly pushed for a measure requiring photo identification for voters at polling places, saying it is needed to combat fraud. Democrats have called those efforts an attempt to discourage minority voters. A 2006 voter ID law was overturned by the state Supreme Court for violating the state constitution. The latest measure stalled in the state Senate this year.
Local factors in Ferguson complicate matters, too, including a relatively transient population and the timing of municipal elections – held in the spring instead of November, when presidential or congressional elections drive much higher turnout. On the first day of Hagens’ registration drive, she said, she helped 28 people fill out forms to vote, but five people who approached her to sign up said they were felons and might not be eligible.
Over the last 25 years, the population of Ferguson, now about 21,000, has shifted from nearly three-quarters white to mostly black. Even so, five of the six City Council members are white, as is Mayor James W. Knowles III. Knowles, who once led the St. Louis Young Republicans, won a second term in April with just 1,314 votes from among the city’s more than 12,000 registered voters. No one ran against him.
Ask people along the streets here why they choose not to vote and they answer, mostly, with shrugs. Voter turnout has been far higher in presidential elections, and some had not even realized there was a mayoral race last spring. “You don’t really see the candidates or even anything about them until a week or two before the election, and even then it’s not much,” said Alyce Herndon, 49, who has voted but, like many here, said she had not had cause to attend council meetings.
Other state Republican leaders have distanced themselves from those remarks, and Wills did not return requests for an interview. “I think he spoke inartfully about one effort,” Ed Martin, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, said in an interview. “Anything we can do to get more participation is good for all of us.”
Demarkus Madyun, 26, of St. Louis, said he was registered but had come to the registration table to update his address.
“If we’re going to try to say that the system has to be corrected for us to receive justice, we have to do everything that we can to be a part of the system,” he said. “Until we have people in office, it will never be better. Not just presidents – mayors, county executives, the governor.”
Without that, he added, “then everything that we’ve done for the last few weeks is for nothing.”