FERGUSON, Mo. — Down the street from where the body of Michael Brown lay for hours after he was shot three weeks ago, volunteers have appeared beside folding tables to sign up new voters.
In Ferguson, which is two-thirds African American but has mostly white elected leaders, only 12 percent of registered voters took part in the last municipal election, and political experts say black turnout was very likely lower. But since a white police officer killed Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, there is a new focus on promoting the power of the vote, an attempt to revive one of the keystones of the civil-rights movement.
“A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected,” said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferguson with her mother and pledged to come back each Saturday. “The prosecutor; he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council; they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”
NAACP leaders are creating a door-to-door voter-registration effort with a jarring reminder as its theme: “Mike Brown Can’t Vote, but I Can.” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is working with others to hold a “candidate school” for people, including young black residents who say they want to serve on a city council or school board but need guidance on what a political campaign requires.
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On Saturday, meanwhile, Brown’s parents led hundreds of people in a march in honor of Brown, ending up at a makeshift memorial that marked where he was shot Aug. 9. “We know that his life is not going to be in vain,” said the Rev. Spencer Booker, of St. Louis’ St. Paul A.M.E. Church. “We know you’re going to even the score, God. We know you’re going to make the wrong right.” Hours later, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the police department and fire station, blocking the road.
The attempt to galvanize voting in Ferguson comes against a backdrop of intense political struggles over the ballot in the state.
Republican lawmakers, who dominate the Missouri Legislature, have repeatedly pushed for a measure requiring photo identification for voters at polling places, saying it is needed to combat fraud. Democrats have called those efforts an attempt to discourage minority voters. A 2006 voter-ID law was overturned by the state Supreme Court for violating the state constitution. The latest measure stalled in the state Senate this year.
Local factors in Ferguson complicate matters, too, including a relatively transient population and the timing of municipal elections: held in the spring instead of November, when presidential or congressional elections drive much higher turnout. On the first day of Hagens’ registration drive, she said, she helped 28 people fill out forms to vote, but five people who approached her to sign up said they were felons and might not be eligible.
In the past 25 years, the population of Ferguson, about 21,000, has shifted from nearly three-quarters white to mostly black. Even so, five of the six City Council members are white, as is Mayor James Knowles III. Knowles, who once led the St. Louis Young Republicans, won a second term in April with 1,314 votes from among the city’s more than 12,000 registered voters. No one ran against him.
Ask people along the streets here why they choose not to vote and they answer, mostly, with shrugs.
Among some Republicans, the mounting political efforts have provoked tension. Told of the voter-registration booth that had appeared near a memorial for Brown, Matt Wills, executive director of the state Republican Party, voiced outrage in an interview with Breitbart News. “If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Wills was quoted as saying. “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”
Other state Republican leaders have distanced themselves from those remarks, and Wills did not return requests for an interview. “I think he spoke inartfully about one effort,” Ed Martin, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, said in an interview. “Anything we can do to get more participation is good for all of us.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.