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Analyzing the voter turnout in Ferguson, Missouri

Elections are less than a week away; get informed about the candidates and go vote. I’m sorry, it’s just that when I became a Social Studies Education major, I had to take an oath to tell people to vote whenever I can. To be honest though, I’m not sure how much of an impact voting actually makes, at least in national elections. That’s not an endorsement for forgoing the vote, unless you’re Nebraskan.

One thing that I can say for sure is that your vote does matter in local and state elections. And I don’t just mean that each vote carries more weight because there are fewer, although that is true. I mean that your vote matters in local elections because participation in government breeds stability and trust in government. After some quick googling, I was able to find some research done by the PEW Research Center correlating Midterm voter turnout and public trust in government. Needless to say, both have been falling pretty steeply since Nixon resigned, with one large spike right after 9/11. Today, voter turnout in midterm elections stands at about 40 percent while public trust in government is at around 24 percent.

Of course, correlation doesn’t prove causation, but I think that the relationship is fairly logical: when someone votes and their candidate is elected, the voter had a measurable impact and likely feels somewhat responsible for this representative. If they voted and their candidate failed to be elected, the voter can at least acknowledge their own attempt to build the government they want. In either case, the voter should feel less distant from government and take a more active interest in its well-being, thereby improving public confidence.

I’ve been speaking in generalities so far, but I want to focus on one place in particular that I think shows my point: Ferguson, MI. Even though I knew that I would eventually write about Ferguson (it’s too important not to), I have been very hesitant to do so because, and I can’t stress this enough, I am not qualified to talk about Ferguson or the endemic problems it represents. This is your final warning to put down this paper and go read an article by an expert.

According to the latest census, Ferguson is approximately 67 percent African-American. Despite this, five out of the six city council members in Ferguson are Caucasian. And while this doesn’t prove anything about a lack of representation – those white city council members might just have really good politics and so their race is overlooked – I think that ideally, the percentage of representatives with any characteristic should equal the percentage of voters with that characteristic (see also: the definition of “representative”).

As to the reason why this disparity occurred, the smoking gun appears to be the voter turnout for the last municipal election, where only 17 percent of eligible white adults actually voted, and the rate was 6.7 percent among eligible black voters. While both of these rates are pitiful, we can see that white votes were twice as “powerful” as black votes in the election, despite there being half as many white people as black people. Recall that this assumes that people vote to best represent their own demographic.

The cause of this turnout is unclear. Arguments can be made for willful disenfranchisement by the local and state government, or for a cyclical effect of voter distrust leading to apathy. The effect however, seems clear: African-Americans in Ferguson feel that they are under attack

from the police and by extension the government that employs them. If citizens in Ferguson felt more connected to the government, if they felt like their voices were being heard and their concerns were being addressed, I wonder if the tragic death of Michael Brown would have ignited protests and violence (most of it not from Ferguson citizens, mind you) to the degree it did. I wonder if a more representative government would have employed a majority white police force in a majority black city, and if it had not, would Michael Brown have even been killed in the first place?

One Comment

  1. James Dunham James Dunham November 11, 2014

    Your view that Poor Voter Turnout by African American Citizens in Ferguson is in any way a Reflection of their feelings of being Under Attack or that they have hurdles in regards to voting (In a State with NO Voter ID Laws) is Absurd.

    They are simply not exercising their Constitutional Responsibility to Vote.

    Actually in spite of Great African American Leaders DYING to garner African Americans their Rights to Vote.. The Larger African American Community has been WOEFULLY Irresponsible in using this Powerful Tool of having their Voice heard.. Quite frankly in the Modern Era the only ones they have to Blame are themselves.

    Apologists like you do nothing but give People that Refuse to exercise their Basic Civic Duty the Cover they need to continue their Self Destructive Behavior.

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