Sometimes there are amazing numbers. And sometimes there are amazing numbers that need to be checked twice.
When news emerged recently of a big wave of voter registrations in Ferguson, Mo., the city rocked by protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the Monitor joined in the coverage.
It turns out the numbers behind the media reports were wrong.
The St. Louis County Board of Elections has had to backtrack on reports of more than 3,000 new registrations in the two months since the Aug. 9 shooting. Voter registration is up, but only by 128 people (as of Monday) in the St. Louis area suburb of about 21,000 people. So, no big surge.
Rita Days, the county’s director of elections, says the mistake happened because her office isn’t used to pulling reports on how registration has changed in a specific city over a short period of time.
The initial attempt to create a report on registrations since Mr. Brown’s death instead added up all activities relating to voter records in Ferguson – not just new registrations. So the total was affected by things like changes of address, marriages, and the recount of ballots for a local referendum.
Brown’s shooting and the street protests that followed have focused national attention on the fact that a large majority of Ferguson residents are black, while the city council and police department are overwhelmingly white. Local residents were outraged not only about Brown’s death but also over what they saw as a heavy-handed police response to protests.
A rise in registrations, as the recent Monitor story noted, could be viewed as progress in the form of rising civic engagement.
But that engagement involves more than just the act of registering.
Although rising registration would be a good thing in any community, Ferguson’s civic challenge if anything appears to be turnout on election day. As the Monitor’s initial story pointed out, just 12 percent of registered voters turned out for a municipal election in April, in which the mayor won a new term.
The share of Ferguson adults who are registered – about 8 in 10 as of April – is above the national average. For comparison, in 2012 about 71 percent of voting-age American citizens were registered.
After registering, “the second step is actually coming out and voting,” says Ms. Days, the county elections director.