The timing of elections matters (Ferguson edition)

Ferguson is two-thirds black, but its local government – the mayor along with five of six council members – is white. One reason is how elections are structured.

Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles (l.) engaged in a brief dialogue with opposition leaders in Ferguson, Mo., on Tuesday. Some, like Malik Shabazz (r.), national president of Black Lawyers for Justice, said that while he may not agree with the policy decisions of Mayor Knowles, a dialogue was necessary to move forward.

Brian Schaffner, Wouter Van Erve and Ray LaRaja writing at The Monkey Cage note the following:

The conflict in Ferguson, Mo., has captured the nation’s attention and once again put race front and center in American politics. This piece, for instance, notes that while Ferguson is 67 percent black, five of the six council members and the mayor are all white. Why this disparity? There are two culprits: the timing of municipal elections and the nature of the ballot in these elections.

1.  Timing of elections:

Ferguson holds municipal elections in April of odd-numbered years. In doing so, the town is hardly unique. Approximately three-fourths of American municipalities hold their elections in odd years, a Progressive-era reform intended to shield municipal elections from the partisan politics of national contests, but one that has been shown to have a dramatic effect on reducing turnout.

2.  Nature of the ballot:

Ferguson also holds nonpartisan elections (where party labels do not appear on the ballot), another Progressive reform, and one that has been shown to reduce both what citizens know about candidates as well as their likelihood of voting. These consequences are worse for people with less education and less income.

The results on turnout are quite dramatic (see below).

More at the link (and some links to follow from there, if one is interested).

Now, some will no doubt say that it is the fault of voters for not showing up at the appointed time, and that is all well and good. However, the bottom line is this: Design choices matter and if the goal of elections is to actually elect representative bodies, then issues such as timing and ballot structure should be examined and reformed in a way that better conforms to actual human behavior. Further, situations like the one we are seeing in Ferguson would be less likely to happen with more representative local government.

Steven L. Taylor appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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