Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ferguson and the voter suppression issue

This post has been syndicated at!

I suspect St. Louis County, Missouri, has a voter suppression problem. When I say voter suppression, I include not only racially biased voting regulations, district creation, and schedules but also the work of an adept group of GOP activists who will throw out voter registrations under the guise of "voter fraud charges." They will also send overly-zealous vote challengers to monitor the polls, and they have supported a mysterious conservative organization that claimed to be a voting rights organization yet worked to decrease voting.

Voter suppression in Missouri should not be news to progressive political organizers. Nonetheless, it's crucial that people who plan to register people of color to vote in St. Louis County understand what they're really up against.

Most people who pay attention to politics know that Black voters tend to vote for Democratic Party candidates, and they may also know that the Republican party has been unhappy about voter registration drives in Black communities. GOP activists have admitted that much: they want to stop Democratic Party voters from getting to the polls. Therefore, is it possible that in St. Louis County elections the GOP has been more effective than the media cares to report?

I fully disclose here that in 2007 and 2008, I worked about six months as the
National Political Communications Coordinator of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Yes, that ACORN, the group that was stripped of its federal funding in 2009 and sent down in sludge. I was not working there, however, when it collapsed.

Always up for a scandal, journalists pounded out stories about the group's alleged crimes after a relatively unknown conservative operative released a libelous video showing what appeared to be impropriety. When a court ruled the operative had doctored the video footage, however, the stories were few.

ACORN, primarily an anti-poverty and social justice organization, indeed suffered some internal dysfunction, part of which persuaded me to leave, but I saw and heard nothing while there that indicated it deserved demolition. Nonetheless, as it actively registered poor, predominantly Black and Brown voters, it stayed near the top of GOP's hit list. For years, the party tried to have ACORN indicted on bogus "voter fraud" charges.

During the 2008 election season, on my first day at ACORN, I fell into the fire working on an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the case of Crawford vs. Marion County (Indiana), one of the earlier cases in the Right Wing's war on voting rights that involved a push for Voter ID laws. ACORN was one of many progressive groups submitting a brief as friend of the court.

Up, I climbed the learning curve. While I had kept up with social justice issues, I had not been following the Republican Voter ID law campaign, its push to stop early voting in some areas, or its gerrymandering schemes. Through research, I soon understood that its campaign included smearing ACORN's vote registration work. Republicans in Kansas City and St. Louis seemed to work at this especially hard.

You may read some of the allegations against the non-profit's work in the city of St. Louis and see who threw the punches from 2006 onward. You may also read news coverage of an ACORN response (.pdf). In addition, after ACORN went down, a 2010 article about "a few" incidents of "aggressive" Republicans challenging votes appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. And this article may interests you as well. In 2012, Republican leadership asked one of the same Republican election officials who smeared ACORN to help with elections in St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson.

But I don't have to go that far back. On Tuesday, while Ferguson protests continued, Missouri Republican Party executive director Matt Wills complained to conservative media site Brietbart News that it's wrong that Mike Brown organizers are registering Ferguson's Black citizens to vote. Brietbart's headline: "MISSOURI GOP: MICHAEL BROWN VOTING REGISTRATION BOOTHS 'DISGUSTING.'"

Wills curiously ties the voter registration effort to race while denying that anything that's happened in Ferguson is related to race: "Injecting race into this conversation and into this tragedy, not only is not helpful, but it doesn’t help a continued conversation of justice and peace."

Apparently, to Wills, it's impossible to work toward a better Ferguson and American with Black people if Black people also vote. Also, if it's not about race, then why does he care about Mike Brown protesters who are residents of Ferguson registering to vote? Isn't it good for all Americans to vote?

To be fair, the St.Louis Post-Dispatch reports that another Republican strongly disagrees with Wills's outburst.
This morning, Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, took to Twitter expressing his outrage at Wills' comments. "I have no problem (with) protesters, or anyone, getting registered to vote," Silvey tweeted. "How do we keep our (government) accountable if not by ballot?"
Well, at least some people in the Republican Party believes in fair elections. And wouldn't it be wonderful if whoever they are would join with organizers and help Ferguson protesters register to vote in the upcoming mid-term elections? I mean, earnestly encouraging people to exercise their right to vote is the sign of a healthy Republic, right? But not in St. Louis County, Missouri, I guess.


Perhaps questions about voting rights and Ferguson are better left unaddressed until a period of restoration, reclamation, and healing rolls over town and country. After all, as I write, Mike Brown hasn't even been buried yet.

Perhaps while we ponder whether anyone on the Ferguson police force will be held accountable for Brown's death and for numerous civil rights violations, it's too soon to look behind the curtain of the Republican power structure in St. Louis County. And, in spite of what's happened in Ferguson, you have probably heard someone declare Brown's killing is "not a political issue."

Yet, what supporter of democracy can look away from facts reported on CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jonesand elsewhere that Ferguson is 67 percent Black, and nearly all its cops are White." Not only is the police force mostly White, but the mayor is White, and the city council is mostly White. This data seems odd to people who assume adults will go to the polls and vote in their best interest, so they ask, "What's exceptional about Ferguson, Missouri?"

Early in the Ferguson story, while deeply troubled by the police brutality issue and the overreach of a militarized police force, I became stuck on more than the 60s-era-flashback of its spectacle. As you can see by my tweets, I wanted someone in mainstream media to explain to us how Ferguson ended up with so few Black people in civil positions of power?

On August 14, here I am on Twitter asking someone to dig deeper on the issue.

I considered that possibly Black voters in Ferguson approved of the way the police force has protected them in the past, and maybe they also love how Mayor James Knowles III does his job.

If I lived there and that were the case, then I would disagree. The Ferguson police department has shown the world that it does not respect the Black community, and everything about its mayor says "wrong man for the job" to me. Performing during this crisis, he proved himself astronomically tone deaf on race relations in his city, and last year he bragged on his Facebook page about Ferguson's formula to deter "White flight"?

Dare we ask what that formula is, what those policies are? And dare we confront him with his comment that Ferguson does "not have a racial divide"?

But is it right for us outsiders to be more concerned about Ferguson's lopsided power structure than Black people in Ferguson are themselves? Obviously, people choose who they want to hold office either by pulling a lever or staying at home, and that is their right. Still, I remain troubled.

I've seen articles about the city's imbalanced power status. They often discuss the racial history of the small city and Missouri , or they simply repeat in different ways that Ferguson's problem is a "mostly White police force vs. a mostly Black town." Neither alone explains how this otherwise sleepy hamlet blew up over what on the surface seems to be the death of one Black boy. But people have opinions with numbers to make their case, even the White Supremacist propaganda blog, Stuff Black People Don't Like.

I can't definitively answer why too few Black people vote in Ferguson's municipal elections, but I'm giving the issue a long side-eye. I know the local Republican Party would prefer that Black people don't vote.

On August 14, I began writing this essay, but I didn't post it at my blog or try to place it anywhere else because the next day it seemed some reporters had begun digging into Ferguson's voting problem. For instance, the Washington Post published an article on bias in local elections, which argues the timing of municipal elections and ballot-type discourage voter participation.

Then a few days later at the Sunday, August 17, rally in Ferguson, Al Sharpton, speaking to a packed church, encouraged and chided Ferguson's Black community about its dismal voter turnout.
“Michael Brown is gonna change this town,” he said, before criticizing the paltry voting record on the area. “You all have got to start voting and showing up. 12% turnout is an insult to your children.”
Sharpton and other leaders declared that they would register voters in Ferguson. Good, I thought, good, but I hope everybody in the crew knows that more's going on with the Ferguson electorate than simply Black people not voting.


Unknown said...

Remarkable analysis and excellent links to other sources of information. I've shared it on our Proud Black Voter blog in the sidebar on 'voter suppression'.

I'll also share via Twitter and my Electronic Village Facebook page.

Keep doing what you do Nordette!

Vérité Parlant said...

Thank you, Wayne.