A Crucial GOTV Effort in Ferguson

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say we are about to see a crucial test of everything we think we know about Get-Out-the-Vote efforts in a small municipal election in Missouri next week. Yes, it’s in Ferguson, and as Jamil Smith explains at TNR, elections for three city council posts will demonstrate pretty clearly whether the agony of that community–a majority-black town with an overwhelmingly white government and police force–since the shooting of Michael Brown last August will produce real change:

Three of the six seats on the city council—the mayor occupies the seventh seat—are up for grabs. Currently, the council has one black member, Dwayne James. Among the eight candidates running on Tuesday, four are black. The open seats are dispersed among the city’s three Wards. In Ward 3, where Brown was killed, either Lee Smith or Wesley Bell will ensure that a second black Councilmember is elected. In the northernmost Ward 1, two of the four candidates are black.

Perhaps the most important person in the Ferguson election isn’t on the ballot at all. As the Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson Township—one of the 28 that make up St. Louis County—Patricia Bynes already holds an elected state office. For the last several months, she has also been a campaign manager for two of the “change” candidates for Ferguson City Council: Smith in Ward 3, and white activist Bob Hudgins in Ward 2, who told me that his candidacy grew out of talks during the protests. Though she’s not managing the campaign of Ella Jones, one of two black candidates in Ward 1, Bynes is actively supporting her.

Perhaps more important than color representation will be the power these new councilmembers will have to shift how Ferguson governs itself. The City Council chooses the city manager, who in turn supervises the police department and other agencies. “This election wouldn’t have been possible without protest,” said former Ferguson resident Alexis Templeton, co-founder of Millennial Activists United. “People who have been out there and stood with us are on the ballot….”

The election will turn on whether the majority-black population in each ward turns out to vote. If they come out, candidates like Jones, Smith, and Hudgins will win. However, fewer than 12 percent of eligible voters showed up at last year’s city election. And that was an improvement over the 2012 and 2013 totals.

Smith fears a sort of long-term despair based on bitter experience could keep African-American turnout very low despite all the evidence that the status quo is intolerable. If that’s so, what does that tell us about the hopes progressives have for turning out disempowered people in future elections when the stakes are less viscerally obvious?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.