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Events In Ferguson Spur Political Action, Search For New Voters

Emanuele Berry

Under the cover of a large umbrella, Shiron Hagens trudges through a Jennings shopping center parking lot that borders Ferguson. She stops just outside a store. Hagens is not here to shop, but to register voters.

Following the death of Michael Brown many people joined marches and protest. Hagens started registering.

“There was just this obvious disconnect between what our leaders thought was going on, and what the community felt had been going,” said Hagen. She thinks this has made others realize “that they are not the right representative for us if they don’t understand our issues.”

The disconnect between residents and local officials has boiled over at public forums and meetings. Many have expressed frustration over the fact that, while nearly 70 percent of Ferguson residents are black, five of the six city council members and the mayor are white.

But to change leadership, the community might have to change its voting habits. In the 2013 municipal election just over 12 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Members of the Ferguson City Council, at their first official meeting since death of Michael Brown, spent the evening hearing comments from angered citizens.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Ferguson City Council, at their first official meeting since death of Michael Brown, spent the evening hearing comments from angered citizens.

Hagens and her mother have worked to register voters in the Ferguson community for past three Saturdays. They aren’t part of an organization -- Hagens doesn’t even live in Ferguson -- but she wants people throughout north county to get more involved in local elections.

Hagens has experience registering voters. She canvassed during the 2008 and 2012 election season. When she wanted to help the community after the unrest, she decided to push political action.

“Marching isn’t quite my thing. I don't think it’s active enough and I don't see the direct results from the marching, so I thought I needed to actually do something. This I how I decided to contribute,” Hagens said. “We’ve made a commitment to be here every Saturday before the 6th of October, which is the last day you can update your address.”

Their goal is to register 50 people a day. So far, their highest tally for a day is 29. Typically voter registration drives are prominent during national and state elections. Hagens says it’s just as important to promote local elections.

“In local elections that’s where you really see the difference people can make,” Hagens said. “One thousand people can swing elections, 500 people can be the difference between one person winning and another person winning. It’s that small of a difference.”

A changing population

Over the past 20 years, Ferguson’s demographic makeup has shifted from three-quarters white to two-thirds black. 

Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says that although the city’s overall population has shifted, its voting base hasn’t.

“The residential population of African Americans is typically younger,” Jones said. “A higher proportion of them are under 18, therefore are not eligible to vote. And they are less interested, as newcomers, in local politics. Put all those things together and I suspect the electorate of the city of Ferguson is still majority white, especially the electorate in local elections.”

Jones says eventually this electorate will shift. 

“The newcomers to a community take time to establish roots and to get involved in the community matters. They are less likely to both participate and ultimately run for office," Jones said. "It takes time for those roots to be established and that time typically is 20, 25 years.”

Jones also notes that Ferguson’s low voter turnout is not unique.

“In local elections in St. Louis County in general, the typical turnout as measured as percentage of registered voters is between 10 and 15 percent,” said Jones. “Sometimes if there is a hotly contested issue, they might get into the low 20s, but that is the exception, not the rule.” 

Why people don’t show

During the presidential election, voter turnout rates tend to be higher. According to a Washington Post article, 54 percent of registered black voters and 55 percent of white voters in Ferguson participated in the 2012 presidential election.

Patricia Bynes, the Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township, says municipal elections don’t have the same draw as presidential elections.

“There is not as much money behind these municipal elections, if there is any money behind them,” Bynes said. “A lot of it is probably donated time and donated work by your family knocking on neighborhood doors. So it doesn't get the same attention that the national elections get.”

Credit Rebecca Smith, St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Township Committeewoman Patricia Bynes is also a member of the Ferguson United leadership team.

Bynes says part of what makes bringing attention to these elections more difficult is the large number of municipalities.

“There is no way (for general media) to cover what’s going on and discuss all the issues of what’s going on,” Bynes said. She said sometimes people don’t even know there is an election.

The timing of elections also affects turnout. Ferguson holds elections on odd numbered years in April. This means state and national elections often don’t coincide with local elections. Bynes says voting in April isn’t a habit for most people.

“Most people are on that presidential cycle,” she said. “When you're on that presidential ballot, people who show up for president, they'll vote for the other things down the ticket. Now you’re trying to create a whole new voting habit in April.”

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, thinks another reason people don’t show up is apathy.

“People too often feel that it does not matter, that when you are choosing between two imperfect candidates that it doesn't really matter which one gets in,” French said. “I think it has worked in the favor of some folks for a very long time to keep folks thinking that they don't have any power and that voting doesn't matter.”

Making voting matter

Organizations and individuals throughout St. Louis are hoping to change voter turnout. Voter registration groups and canvas trainings have popped up throughout the area in response to Michael Brown's shooting. A spokesperson for Rita Heard Days, the Democratic director of elections in St. Louis County, said they have received 109 new registrations in the past month.

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st ward, at a recent city hearing.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st ward, at a recent city hearing.

One organization created with a focus on voting and empowerment is HealSTL. French is the organization’s founder. He says registration is just the beginning. He hopes to use the momentum and emotion of the last few weeks to teach young people about the power they have to change their community.

“You want folks to understand their power as voters and we saw that a lot of people, especially young people didn’t get the connection between voting, or the lack of voting and what we saw in the last few weeks,” French said. “So we need to see a lot of education done about that and then mobilization.

For 15-year-old Devante Jackson, who goes by the name Low Key, this past month has provided him with a new appreciation for community activism and voting. He’s from Ferguson, and voting was never on his radar. Now he’s helping register voters part of the activist group Lost Voices.

“I never really thought about all that extra stuff and all that,” he said. “I never was really with it, and I never really understood how we vote and how it impacts our community.”

Devante says he hopes the entire community votes in the next election.

“I decided to pass out voter registration cards because our people need to vote,” he said. “Black people, all people need to vote because that’s the only way that our world works is people voting, because the people in charge are the ones that make that decision but we impact that decision by how we vote.”

Devante said he knows that voting won’t solve everything. There are a lot of other challenges the community has to tackle, but voting is an important part of his and Ferguson’s future.

“This just changes my whole life, so I don’t have no choice but be aware with politics all that, that’s my job now, that’s my duty, that’s my responsibility."