Voters in Ferguson head to the polls Tuesday in the first local elections held since Michael Brown was fatally shot last summer—the latest gauge of whether the city is changing in the wake of the tragedy and unrest that has followed.
Regardless of what happens Tuesday, Ferguson’s elections are already historic: Half the candidates on the ballot are black, an unprecedented number. The odds could produce another first: more than one African-American serving on the city council. Of the three contested races on the ballot, only one features solely white candidates.
But while interest in the election has definitely increased among the media, it is unclear whether the added attention will translate into actual votes.
“My guesstimate is that it’s not going to change much,” said state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson. “It takes time for people to process what they have been going through. There seems to be, on the surface, a lot of activism … but many of the people who are not regular voters have not had the opportunity to truly engage and ask the critical questions.”
As of Monday, only another 608 registered voters have been added to the rolls since August 1, St. Louis County Board of Elections Democratic Director Eric Fey said. (More than half of the city’s 21,000 residents are registered.) And absentee ballot requests – usually an indicator of voter activity – are also largely unchanged, with fewer than 200 inquiries ahead of the election.
Apathy is a challenge, Chappelle-Nadal said.
“There are people out there who just don’t believe their vote counts,” she said. “[They say] nothing’s going to change with the system.”
Historically, interest in Ferguson’s local elections has been low. Turnout has averaged about 15 percent for city elections, compared to around 75 percent of voters in presidential election years.
Still, with the extraordinary circumstances of the past few months, combined with the increased voter outreach efforts, it’s still unclear what will happen on Election Day.
“I would venture to guess turnout will be higher, but I don't know that for sure,” said Fey, the board of elections director. “There seems to definitely be increased interest. There have been a number of civic and advocacy groups in Ferguson going door-to-door for certain candidates, doing voter registration events. That's not normal in a municipal election in St. Louis County.”
Though the roles of municipal leadership in Ferguson have been traditionally viewed as little more than ceremonial, the stakes are high for the incoming leadership.
Among the new council’s early duties will be choosing a new city manager and municipal judge—the person who will preside over Ferguson’s local court system, which was accused in a Department of Justice report of issuing excessive fines for traffic violations that disproportionately affected black drivers.
Former city manager John Shaw and municipal court judge Ronald Brockmeyer both stepped down from their posts last month. They were among six Ferguson officials to be fired or resign in the days following the DOJ’s blistering report on Ferguson, which condemned the city’s police department and court system as predatory and racist.
Last month, the city posted a request for qualified candidates on its website, and interested applicants have until April 16 to apply. According to the website, the council is expected to make the two-year appointment in June.
Also last month, five unnamed individuals filed a petition with the Ferguson city clerk to recall Mayor James Knowles III. They have until mid-May to collect the necessary signatures to meet their goal.