In the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the Aug. 9 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, there has been a focus on racial disparities in representation. A recent study found that while people of color make up 37.2 percent of the U.S. population, they account for only 10 percent of elected officials at the federal, state and county levels. By contrast, white men, who make up 31 percent of the population, account for 65 percent of representatives.
With midterm elections coming up, registration and turnout are increasingly important matters, particularly in cities such as Ferguson that are majority black but are controlled by a majority white political class. The political science literature allows us to discern why some councils in black cities are overwhelmingly white — and why this is a problem.
To find out which cities aren’t represented proportionally, Demos, the think tank where I work as a research assistant, turned to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) census, which has demographic data on more than 2,600 cities. To measure descriptive representation, Demos examined councils where the share of the African-American population was large enough that a representative council would have at least one black councilmember. Of those 438 councils, 175 underrepresent their African-American population by at least one councilmember. Of the 95 cities that were half African-American, 42 of them were underrepresented by at least one councilmember. Within this group, 14 cities stood out as being particularly unrepresentative, with only one or no African-Americans on their councils. One such city, with a population that is 63 percent black but a council with only one black member, is Ferguson.
Across the country, 1.2 million African-Americans are underrepresented by their city councils. By contrast, about 500,000 whites live in such communities. One in six African-Americans lacks proportionate council representation. For whites, 1 in 66 do. Approximately 77,000 African-Americans live in communities where they make up more than half the population but hold only one or even no seats on the local council. Since the ICMA is only a sample of cities, there are likely millions more African-Americans across the country who are not represented by their city councils.
In political science, descriptive representation refers to legislators’ having things in common with the groups they represent. It has been linked to confidence in government, positive legislative outcomes and engagement with the political process. Political scientist Christian Grose found that black legislators lead to more congressional attention and money for black constituents.
Benefits such as these could have stopped the crisis in Ferguson. A black city council may have raised the alarm about police treatment in a city where blacks make up 93 percent of arrests, 91 percent of searches and 86 percent of stops by the Ferguson police.
Municipal elections have far lower voter turnout than national elections. The most likely explanation is that politically motivated parties have kept some elections off cycle to bolster their political power.
Researcher David Canon suggests that descriptive representation can be especially useful in areas with racial tension, where politicians must balance the needs of a diverse constituency. By contrast, policymakers in Ferguson were sharply criticized for their handling of the crisis and the poor performance of the police chief they appointed. As one protester told the council, “You’ve lost your authority to govern this community.” Another noted, “Mike Brown had to die for our voices to be heard.”
Most blacks, in Ferguson and beyond, do not enjoy descriptive representation, because of the municipal electoral process, in which the game is rigged against candidates of color.
Low turnout in council elections is a key factor in reducing descriptive representation. Municipal elections have far lower voter turnout than national elections. But it’s unlikely that demographic factors are the culprit. Instead, the most likely explanation is that politically motivated parties have kept some elections off cycle to bolster their political power.
“Even if we control for a host of other factors associated with turnout, holding an on-cycle election still increases the turnout of registered voters by an average of 26 to 36 percent above turnout for off-cycle elections,” write political scientists Zoltan Hajnal, Paul G. Lewis and Hugh Louch. Similarly, political scientists Christopher Berry and Jacob Gersen found that when school board elections are timed to state and national elections, voter turnout is about 150 percent higher. Political scientists Thomas Holbrook and Aaron C. Weinshenk focus on campaigns and found that “the effect of the total amount of campaign spending on turnout is notable.” This is worrying because an overwhelmingly rich and white donor base makes fundraising difficult for candidates of color.
In addition to these demand-side factors, researchers are examining supply-side factors. After all, people can’t vote for candidates of color unless there are people of color on the ballot. Paru Shah of the University of Wisconsin has been doing pioneering research on the subject. She has found when people of color run, they win about half the time. She told me that “compared to their population size, there are fewer minority candidates running” and explained that an important question is whether a candidate of color has won an election among a group voters before, since “once a candidate of color has run and won, there was a tipping point.”
There are also important effects on turnout. Amir Fairdosi and Jon Rogowksi found that a black Democratic candidate on the ballot in a midterm boosts black turnout. (There is not an equivalent boost for a black Republican.) Lawrence Bobo and Franklin Gilliam found that in areas with high levels of black political empowerment, such as having a black mayor, black political participation is higher.
This conclusion has support from other studies, and the political effects of greater minority participation are substantial: A large body of research shows that a shift in the electorate turning out to vote will shift politicians’ voting preferences. When people of color become more involved in the political process, it creates a positive cycle that can bring about beneficial policies.
‘Old boys’ club’
When citizens lack descriptive representation, as most blacks do, they do not trust their representatives. Some 44 percent of Americans surveyed said that “an old boys’ club” is the best description of our representatives, with only 7 percent saying they are “the best and brightest.” That means the next Ferguson is just around the corner: When a crisis happens, unrepresentative local governments will struggle to retain legitimacy. Even without crisis, vital needs of the community will remain unaddressed by a government that seems unresponsive and aloof.
However, the Ferguson protests also showed the power of descriptive representation. Witness the dramatic change of mood when Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, an African-American, was placed in charge of security in Ferguson. Business Insider reported, “In a tactical U-turn, Johnson, and a handful of black officers without body armor, walked among thousands of protesters.”
The first major step toward better representation is tying municipal elections to presidential or midterm elections, like those coming in November. This will ensure that media coverage and major candidates will bring more voters to the polls.