The demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, over white police officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, brought attention to a curious disparity. While two-thirds of the St. Louis suburb was black, its local government was almost entirely white. One culprit was simple: voter turnout. In the preceding local election, 6 percent of black voters cast ballots, compared to 17 percent of white voters, narrowly yielding a white-majority electorate. The resulting racial disparities on the city council were as predictable as they were dire. Two generations after the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other Great Society reforms, America’s electoral system still suffers from the legacy of Jim Crow: Our political officials and public policies don’t represent the diversity and interests of the country’s large and growing share of non-white citizens. Improving voter turnout is the most obvious solution to this problem, but doing so will require uncharacteristic boldness from our politicians. One of the biggest structural factors keeping turnout low is that the majority of cities nationwide—Ferguson included—hold elections at times that don’t coincide with federal or state elections. Since non-white voters skip non-presidential elections in higher numbers than white voters, moving local and state elections to the quadrennial presidential cycle would painlessly, efficiently increase turnout and produce a more representative electorate across the ballot. As a bonus, holding fewer elections would save money.
Republicans, who have won a national majority in only one of the past six presidential elections, could be expected to criticize such a move as a power-grab by Democrats. That would be a deeply cynical position for a party to espouse in a democracy, but this is the same party that has been pushing voter I.D. laws that make voting more difficult. While these laws’ aggregate impact is still unclear, there’s no doubt that they disproportionately affect poor and minority citizens.
We can also say with certainty that the widespread disenfranchisement of felons—another impediment to voting, with a clear solution—disproportionately affects black voters. Felony convictions barred nearly 6 million people from voting in 2012. Prohibiting people who have completed their sentences from ever voting again is a penalty driven by bigotry. Once they’ve paid their debt to society, felons don’t forfeit other basic civil rights such as due process or equal protection. Disenfranchising them only serves to further ostracize former inmates, making it harder to reintegrate them upon release. It’s also a penalty that falls conspicuously along old racial divides. The South contains a majority of the states that bar felons for life; in Florida, 23 percent of all black adults are barred from voting. Meanwhile, overwhelmingly white states such as Maine and Vermont allow inmates to vote even as they serve their sentences.