Civil Rights, News

Black Voter Turnout Remains Dismally Low in Local Elections

Look at Ferguson: A mostly black town with a mostly white government and police force


By Frederick H. Lowe

Although African-American voter turnout in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections exceeded white turnout, blacks vote in much smaller numbers in local elections where many important issues are decided, according to a study by the Joint Center For Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank for black-elected officials.

African Americans turn out in large numbers in national elections but not in the all-important local elections.
African Americans turn out in large numbers in national elections but not in the all-important local elections.

The 46-page study titled “50 Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics,” noted that in 2008 when Barack Obama ran for president and in 2012 when he was re-elected to a second term, black-voter turnout exceeded the number of whites going to the polls.

“While is it important that we focus on closing a black/white turnout gap in federal elections, we should not ignore disparities in local elections,” the report’s authors wrote. Local elections are fundamentally different. Presidential general election turnout is typically 60% of the voting-age population, but local election turnout averages 27% and in some cases is less than 10%.”

Most races for local offices are non-partisan and political parties generally lack incentives to invest significant resources on turnout for local elections, most of which are held on different dates than federal and state elections.

“As overall turnout declines in local elections, the electorate may become less representative of the racial diversity of community as a whole,” the report’s authors wrote.

They focused on Ferguson, Mo., the St. Louis suburb, where there were  weeks of unrest after a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department said Darren Wilson, now a former Ferguson police officer won’t face civil rights charges in the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown. The Justice Department, however, released a scathing 102-page report about the mostly white Ferguson Police Department, titled “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.”

The Joint Center’s report notes that although Ferguson is 67% African-American, and in 2012 100 percent of the city’s precincts went for President Obama, during the suburb’s off-cycle municipal elections in April 2013, it was a different story.

Voters elected a Republican mayor and six city council members, all but one of whom were white.

“Some have speculated that the drop in turnout from the 2012 November presidential election, which was 54 %, to the 2013 April municipal election, which had a

12 % turnout, produced a much less diverse electorate, with lower turnout among African Americans,” the study reported.

The Joint Center noted that local officials make up the bulk of all elected officials nationwide, and they oversee local police, court systems, schools, economic development and the allocation of over $1.6 trillion per year.

“African Americans account for 12.5 percent of the citizen voting-age population but only 5.7% of city council seats.”

The Joint Center released its report in advance of the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” which occurred on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala.  The march led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.

This story is one of a series articles NorthStar News Today will publish based on the Joint Center’s report.


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