Former State Sen. Rita Days has been removed from her post as director of the St. Louis County Board of Elections. The Board of Election Commissioners – which ousted Days in a unanimous vote Tuesday afternoon – tapped Eric Fey to oversee voting in the state’s most populous county. Fey, the legislative aide to St. Louis County Council Chair Pat Dolan, brings prior experience as an election board employee to the job. He has also served as a foreign election observer. A Democrat, Days has overseen county elections since her appointment by the commission in 2011. Her annual salary was $118,539.
For most people, Ferguson, Mo., will be remembered for one awful August afternoon, when a white police officer there shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. But that incident was only a snapshot in the town’s long and complicated racial history — a history characterized by entrenched segregation and economic inequality, as well as by familiar and systemic obstacles that have kept black residents from holding positions of political power. Ferguson’s population is two-thirds African-American, and yet its mayor, city manager and five of its six City Council members are white. So are its police chief and all but three officers on its 53-member police force. The school board for the Ferguson-Florissant School District is much the same: More than three-quarters of the district’s 12,000 students are black, but the seven-member board includes only one African-American.
Sometimes when a number seems like an outlier, it’s not an outlier — it’s wrong. Last week, the St. Louis County Election Board reported that 3,287 people in Ferguson, Missouri, had registered to vote since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in early August. I wrote at the time that “Ferguson’s 3,287 new registrants (in two months) is more than recorded by any township in St. Louis County in any midterm election since 2002.” On Tuesday, the Democratic leader of the St. Louis County Board of Election Comissioners said, “Turns out that was an incorrect report that we were using.” According to an article by Jessica Lussenhop at Missouri’s Riverfront Times, the initial number reported was the “total number of interactions with Ferguson residents that had anything to do with their voter registration, so that included changes of address and other alterations to records.” The actual number of new registrants from Aug. 9 to Oct. 6 totaled just 128. That’s a little less than 4 percent of the original figure reported by the board.
Last week, numerous news outlets, national and local, reported on a huge increase in registered voters in Ferguson, Mo., following the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown. But it apparently didn’t actually happen. The St. Louis County elections board reported that 3,287 Ferguson residents had registered to vote. That is a huge surge for a city of 21,000, particularly as controversy swelled about the racial make-up of the city government after the shooting. Ferguson is two-thirds African-American, but its mayor and all but one member of the six-person city council are white. But apparently that first report was in error. There was no voter registration spike. The county elections board reversed course on Tuesday and said that, actually, only 128 people had registered to vote since the shooting. Yamiche Alcindor of USA Today reported on the gigantic revision, attributed to an unexplained “discrepancy.”
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 L. Jackson Sr. 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 Mr. 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.
If Ferguson residents want a diverse police force that reflects the community, they need to elect someone who makes inclusion a priority, said Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. In Ferguson – where an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by a white police officer on Aug. 9 – the police department has three black officers and 50 white officers. The town’s population is 67 percent African-American, yet Ferguson has a white mayor and five of the six-member city council members are also white. As the Post-Dispatch illustrated with a startling graphic on the front page of the Sunday paper, Ferguson is typical among county municipalities for its lack of representation of blacks in police and government. Several local leaders are encouraging protesters fighting for justice in the Michael Brown case to keep marching, but also register to vote. The Urban League, NAACP, ministers and politicians have all organized volunteers to educate residents on the voting process and register especially African-American voters. In 2013, only about six percent of the eligible black voters cast their ballot in Ferguson’s municipal election, compared to 17 percent of white voters. “The need for voter registration education and mobility has always been a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement,” McMillan said.
During a brief moment of calm late last week—when the police stood down and protesters celebrated a short-lived victory and it seemed as if the story had undergone a permanent transition—I wrote an article drawing a single line between the trampling of liberties in Ferguson, Missouri, and broader, less violent social phenomena, like voter suppression. Since then, the police have taken another volte-face, public opinion about the events in Ferguson has polarized along racial lines, and the combination of the two has elicited a conservative response that neatly underlines my point. I’m not talking about responses to the details of Michael Brown’s shooting, or the emergence of looters and outside agitators. I’m talking about the reflexive hostility with which conservatives reacted to the news that protesters in Ferguson had organized a voter registration drive. “If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Missouri GOP Executive Director Matt Wills told the conservative website Breitbart. “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.” Breitbart described the drive as “efforts by liberal organizers to set up voter registration booths”—a rendering that reflects a few revealing assumptions. But let’s begin with the overarching one—that these organizers are engaged in something nefarious; that their real goal here is to advance ideological or partisan interests, unrelated to those implicated by the civic unrest.
On Sunday the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and television host, mentioned that voter turnout in the Ferguson, Mo., area was a mere 12 percent in the last election, and pledged to help boost that number with a registration drive. Twelve percent, he said, was “an insult to your children.” He wasn’t the first to think of channeling the anger over Mike Brown’s death in this particular direction. Twitter users on Saturday noted voter registration tables in front of the makeshift memorial where the unarmed teenager was shot by a police officer. Encouraging more participation in the democratic process in a community that feels alienated from political power — hence the demonstrations — seems like an obviously good idea; and one that’s particularly compelling because it’s so simple. Voting is an alternative to protesting in the streets. And yet, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, Matt Wills, denounced the plan.