All too often, I will hear people say “how did this guy get elected?” as they complain about the latest politician who has done something stupid. The volume is even louder when the idiot in question is from an area that is supposed to be liberal. We honestly aren’t surprised when Texas elects the likes of Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert or Steve Stockman. We don’t blink when someone with a history of racism runs for office in Alabama or Mississippi or when the Tea Party of Louisiana falls for a satire story claiming that Common Core turns kids gay.
Yet, when we see racism or overly aggressive policing displayed in places like Ferguson or even New York City, we’re shocked that these things would happen outside the states with the somewhat deserved stereotypes of racism.
In an opinion piece posted by The Kansas City Star, Steve Rose points out what many people have overlooked in the media frenzy surrounding Ferguson, Missouri.
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. (Source)
As he also points out later on, low turnout isn’t just confined to African-Americans. All across the nation, we have a serious problem with people not voting – and it isn’t just the general elections. Primary elections are where candidates for each party are chosen, and with perhaps the exception of the presidential primaries, hardly anyone shows up. Those who do vote tend to have more radical viewpoints than the rest of us and that’s how we end up with members of Congress like Steve Stockman or Michele Bachmann.
In a piece at The Daily Kos, Steve Singiser notes that turnout in municipal elections is even worse, and even in “liberal bastions” like Los Angeles. Why? Because municipal elections are held separately from the general election in November, making sure that turnout is limited to those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo.
By leaving municipal elections as stand-alone dates, these communities ensure that their own municipal elections are stunningly low turnout affairs. As Millhiser noted, turnout in Ferguson in the last municipal elections was a putrid 11.7 percent of registered voters. This is not unique to Ferguson: last year’s spate of municipal elections in my home county of Los Angeles drew 11.9 percent of registered voters to the polls.
In low turnout affairs, allies of the incumbent power structure have an inherent edge because they have a vested interest (and financial resources, courtesy of those patronage jobs and city contracts) in preserving the community political hierarchy. Therefore, they can swamp any upstart candidates financially, leaving the existing structure in place. (Source)
Ask yourself this: When is the last time that you voted for a member of the local school board or county commission? You may know who your member of Congress is, but do you know who the local chief of police is or the county sheriff? Many people don’t, and that is where the problem lies. As I’ve said before, all politics are local. Decisions made by your city council or state legislature are far more likely to affect your day to day life than most decisions made in Washington, DC.
Ferguson didn’t end up with a police force that wasn’t representative of the demographics it was supposed to protect and serve because of Washington, or even the state lawmakers in Jefferson City, Missouri. We can’t ask for change for our communities to come from Washington, we need to make those changes ourselves by voting in our local elections and putting candidates in office that will represent us.
It is easy to sit back and say that both parties are the same or that elections are rigged, but that’s a lazy excuse for apathy. Local elections are often decided by just a few votes and your ballot could be the one that means the difference between a progressive government or the status quo that doesn’t represent the people it is supposed to serve. Let’s use the tragedies of Ferguson, New York and other instances of police brutality to remind ourselves that if we want change, we have to vote in every election. If we fail to do so, then we shouldn’t act surprised when the events of Ferguson and elsewhere happen in our own communities.
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