Steve Rose

Voters’ apathy leads to unbalanced power in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere

Protesters again gathered Thursday evening, walking in laps near the spot where Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo.
Protesters again gathered Thursday evening, walking in laps near the spot where Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo. The Associated Press

Ferguson, Mo., is not a town. It’s a plantation, with a virtually all-white power structure.

The mayor is white.

Five of the six city council members are white.

Six of the seven members of the school board are white.

Ninety-four percent of the police force is white.

And this is in a community where two-thirds of its citizens are black.

Something is wrong with this picture. Very wrong. How could the citizens of Ferguson allow this to happen?

The answer is, democracy has fallen on its face. The African-American community does not get out and vote in low-turnout municipal or school board elections.

When a well-regarded, black superintendent was suspended from his job — without explanation — three black citizens were stirred up enough to run for three different positions on the school board. Only one won.

David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St.Louis has studied this pattern of non-voting blacks in the inner-ring suburbs around St. Louis. This voter apathy is very typical of the communities Kimball has studied.

The result is, as throughout history, African-Americans are once again governed by whites. Only this time, it is self-imposed.

It is tempting to rush to judgment. But first, look in the mirror.

Low-turnout primary elections in this country — where moderates do not get out and vote, but the hard right does — result in extremist candidates, who end up governing, particularly in our legislatures. They may not really reflect the average citizen’s philosophy.

But that phenomenon occurs frequently among any and all ethnic groups in the United States. The distinction as to who ultimately votes is not racial.

Take affluent, educated Johnson County, as but one example. It, too, is a plantation of sorts, governed by its legislators, who are mostly extremists, because the majority do not get out and vote. Only one in five usually vote in a primary election. Less than half will vote in a non-presidential general election. And municipal elections often draw fewer than 10 percent of registered voters.

It is agonizing to watch. One can only hope the pendulum will swing.

It will take a wake-up call to motivate more people to go to the polls.

In the case of Ferguson, their wake-up call may have been an unfortunate shooting of an unarmed teenager.

That could galvanize the African-American community to speak up, at the ballot box, by electing more African-Americans to their city council, to the mayor’s office, to the school board, and that ultimately could lead to a new chief of police, who would provide some real diversity in their police department.

The wake-up call that will motivate more moderates to vote in local and state elections is likely to be over-reach.

Kansas, for example, may respond to over-reach in its upcoming gubernatorial election. A budget slashed with extreme tax cuts is projected to result in a huge deficit. That, in turn, could affect public education, higher education, social services and highways. That should be a wake-up call, indeed.

When only a small percentage of people bother to follow events and take the time to vote, they are saying they do not care who governs them.

Yet, those elected to govern by a small minority of voters set the agenda for every governmental unit in America, from a small town like Ferguson, to state legislatures, to the Congress of the United States.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to