FERGUSON, Missouri — Kenneth Wheat wants to do more to get other African Americans to vote in Ferguson.
“I can count on one or two hands how many African Americans come down to vote. That’s a shame,” says Wheat, 47, who has lived in Ferguson for 15 years with his wife and three children. "There’s enough of us in this town to make a major change or do things that we want to do, but they don’t vote. To be honest with you, I really don’t know why.”
The killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 has forced the community to face a host of other issues, including the low voter turnout in city elections — an abstention rate that some say has contributed to the gulf that exists between the majority black population and the white people who are in power.
In fact, several factors—including an overall lack of civic engagement— are to blame for black disenfranchisement. And the issues here are not unique to Ferguson.
In Ferguson and throughout St. Louis County, city elections are held in April— an electoral calendar that is out of sync with statewide and federal elections, which tend to draw more voters.
Low voter turnout among the black population is partially due to apathy and partially due to "structural, institutional racism,” says Hiram College political science professor Jason Johnson, who spent several days in Ferguson observing events.
Most people in Ferguson are registered to vote, but turnout in city elections has hovered around 15 percent over the past several cycles, according to St. Louis County election records. Turnout is much higher during presidential election years, when some 76 percent of Ferguson residents turn out to the polls. And similar to many African-American communities, turnout was especially high in 2012 and 2008, when President Barack Obama was on the ballot.
But that level of voter mobilization has not been duplicated for local elections, allowing white officials to dominate the city's political leadership.
“If we don’t go out and exercise our right, what right do we have to say anything?” said 58-year-old Reginald Mosley, who lives in an apartment complex not far from where Brown was killed. Mosley said he votes in every election. “You have to vote people out. We need more African Americans to stand up.”
But even if blacks in Ferguson did vote in larger numbers, they'd rarely have a black candidate to vote for.
Ferguson is nearly 70 percent black, but has never had a black mayor. Currently, only one of its six city council members is black, and only two African Americans have served on the city council in Ferguson’s history. (Both were initially appointed after being recruited by white council members, though they successfully ran as incumbents.)
Ward 3, the district with the largest concentration of black residents, has never had a black representative. Even here white candidates consistently run unopposed.
More black people have run for positions on the local school board district with some success. But last year, the district’s superintendent, a black man, was suspended by the all-white board and then resigned, igniting racial tensions in the community.
The hurdles to running for local office in Ferguson are low. The $10 fee to register a candidacy is refundable if the candidate wins at least five percent of the vote. Candidates for mayor must collect 75 signatures from registered voters to run for office; only 50 signatures are needed to run for city council.
Mayor James Knowles III, a Republican, ran unopposed and was re-elected to his second three-year term in April. (The mayor is limited to three consecutive terms). The city’s electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic, but the Democrats didn't field a candidate.
Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, says the lack of black candidates is due to the absence of groups that traditionally give to rise to black political leaders.
“They don’t have the middle-class black organizations that are likely to generate the kind of political leadership that can end up taking over a city,” Spence said, pointing to large black churches, or black fraternities or sororities that tend to exist in major metro areas.
“The lack of that black cultural capital makes it harder for black people in a single municipality to get the critical mass to take over political power. It’s almost like you’re starting from scratch,” he said.
Wheat said he was approached to run as a councilman for Ward 3 in the last election cycle, but declined because of work and family obligations. He is reconsidering for the next election.
“After the (shooting and unrest), I have put a lot more thought into it, to make a difference, to be another voice,” he said.