Residents in Ferguson, Missouri, are casting their votes on Tuesday in a closely watched election some see as a critical step toward ending discriminatory practices detailed in a federal probe of the St. Louis suburb, which was wracked by months of racially charged protests.
Three seats are up for election on the six-member City Council in Ferguson, where two-thirds of the residents are African-American and the municipal leadership has been long dominated by whites. None of the incumbents are running.
Community activists say a lack of adequate representation for African-Americans in Ferguson has contributed to a range of problems that were exposed when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August.
Activists hope new City Council membership will change that, and African-American representation is guaranteed to double to two after Tuesday’s election and could increase to three seats. A history of low voter turnout has some worried.
“This is a step we need to get the city headed in the right direction,” said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson Township who has been running a voter education program. “But we are dealing with a community that doesn’t regularly vote.”
Voter turnout in Ferguson for local elections historically runs from 10 percent to 40 percent, according to St. Louis County records, though voter registration was up about 4.6 percent in the past nine months to more than 12,000 voters.
The election follows a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found broad racial bias in Ferguson’s police force and municipal court system. Ferguson’s city manager, police chief and municipal judge resigned in March after the Justice Department released a scathing report describing the findings.
Ferguson was hit by months of protests including some violence and looting after white officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, 18, in a confrontation on Aug. 9. Protests surged in November after a grand jury decided Wilson should not be charged.
Ferguson, which has about 21,000 residents, has had only two black council members in its history, including Councilman Dwayne James, who is not up for re-election. Eight candidates including four African-Americans are vying for the three seats.
Two African-American candidates are running in the ward where Brown lived. Four candidates, two black and two white, are seeking a second seat. The third seat is being contested by two white candidates.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Missouri; Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Eric Beech)