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Monday, October 24, 2016

By Zoltan Hajnal, Los Angeles Times

Before the media and the public shift their attention to the next pressing issue, we should use this opportunity to think about reforms that could prevent future Fergusons. One solution is easy to legislate and remarkably effective: increase representation.

There are many factors driving the anger in Ferguson. But the fact that African-Americans had almost no representation in city government shaped much of what happened in that Missouri suburb after the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. The figures are stark. Blacks represent two-thirds of the city population, yet the mayor, five of six City Council members, six of seven school board members and 50 of 53 police officers are not black.

Ferguson is not alone on this front. Across the nation, racial and ethnic minorities are grossly underrepresented in city government. African-Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the national population but only 4.3 percent of city councils and 2 percent of mayors. The figures for Latinos and Asian Americans are even worse.

By simply changing local electoral laws, we could radically alter who votes, who wins office and the types of policies that local governments pursue. My research shows that altering the timing of local elections, shifting from nonpartisan to partisan contests, changing from staggered to consolidated council elections and switching from at-large to district elections all have important effects on local politics.

Moving from stand-alone local elections — the system that is in place in Ferguson — to on-cycle elections that occur on the same date as statewide and national contests has the most potential to increase the number of voters. Across the nation, turnout in cities with on-cycle elections is, all else being equal, almost double that of turnout in cities with off-cycle elections.

What makes timing especially appealing as a policy lever is that there are strong incentives — in addition to increasing participation and minority representation — to switch to on-cycle elections. The primary motivation for this move usually has been cost savings. In most states, municipalities pay the entire administrative costs of stand-alone elections but only a fraction of the costs of on-cycle elections. The city of Concord, California, for example, estimated that the cost of running a stand-alone election would be $58,000, while an on-cycle one would be only $25,000.

But other small steps toward more inclusive local elections could have big impacts as well. By adding partisan labels to local electoral ballots, we can make it easier for voters to know what each candidate stands for. By having all council seats up for election at the same time rather than staggering them across two contests, we can make each election more meaningful by having more offices up for grabs. And by electing each council member by district or ward instead of by a citywide at-large vote, we can give minorities a real chance to elect a candidate of their own.

With a few easy steps, we could move from local elections with a tiny and generally unrepresentative electorate to elections with broad and significantly more representative participation. Given that the majority of cities have electoral institutions that tend to generate low turnout, the potential to expand participation is enormous.

All of this has critical ripple effects for minority representation in office. Higher-turnout cities elect city officials who are much more representative. My analysis shows that increasing turnout could eliminate up to a third of the underrepresentation of minorities on city councils and in mayor’s offices.

Cities with higher turnout and greater minority representation tend to enact policies that are more in line with racial and ethnic minority preferences. In particular, higher turnout is associated with greater social welfare spending and greater hiring of minorities in city government.

Coming back full circle to Ferguson, my research with Jessica Trounstine of UC Merced shows that these kinds of changes can reduce frustration among blacks. Our analysis of local surveys and U.S. Census data shows that African-Americans are generally less happy than whites with the performance of their city governments. But those same surveys show that when local governments spend more on social welfare and hire more African-Americans, black dissatisfaction declines and blacks are as happy as whites with local government.

In most cities, a simple municipal ordinance would suffice to change local electoral laws. A survey in California found that more than 40 percent of cities had made a change in the timing of municipal elections in recent years. States can also get involved. In 2012, Arizona passed legislation mandating that many of its cities hold local elections that coincide with statewide contests. Citizens can also contribute. In states with direct democracy, they could put local election timing, district elections or other reforms on the statewide or local ballot.

Entrenched officeholders would probably resist such reforms. But the changes would be too powerful to be ignored. With a few small measures, we could do much to prevent future Fergusons from erupting across the country.

AFP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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  • Dominick Vila

    Better training for police officers, better screening, greater oversight, and a reminder that the most important responsibility for a police officer is protecting the civilian population of the United States, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or age would go a long way, but the long term solution requires a lot more than that.
    We have to go no further than analyzing the reaction of so many fellow Americans to the tragedy in Ferguson, and in so many other cities and towns throughout the USA, the percentage of minorities in prison, the poverty that prevails in so many neighborhoods nationwide, and the dominance of white power on almost every aspect of life in the USA, to understand that change is desperately needed if the goal is to be a nation where every citizen prospers and enjoys the privileges and opportunities that everyone should expect in a country that boasts of being a bastion of freedom and democracy.

    • paulyz

      There has already been your “solutions” for decades with Quotas, diversity training, affirmative action, & Trillions spent on the problems of inner-cities, but the problems continue to grow even worse with a mentality of dependency. People in places like Ferguson need jobs, need families. Many businesses have left many cities where there is a high crime rate.

    • whodatbob

      Your first paragraph is a great theory that I agree with. All police departments would benefit if implemented. Here is the rub. Where’s the money?!
      The Feds don’t have it! State of Missouri don’t have it! Nor does St. Louis County or the municipalities!
      Do you have any concrete solutions to the issues in your second paragraph? I draw a plank on those.

      • Dominick Vila

        If we can afford two unfunded crusades, if we can afford the largest redistribution of money from the public to the private sector in Iraq, if we can afford subsidies and loopholes for individuals and institutions that don’t need our help, the Federal government can afford funding state and local law enforcement agencies.
        Educating the public is a long process, but it is not impossible. The Democratic party has to be more aggressive in highlighting the societal problems we still have, and explaining the benefits of a society absent of prejudice where everyone has the same protections and opportunities. Along the same lines, the media should stop catering to the highest bidder and do what journalists are expected to do: tell us the truth.

        • whodatbob

          You are correct in what you state. But you know as well as I that we could not afford any of those things.
          A Republican controlled House funding for your proposals could be difficult if not impossible. We can hope the mid term elections change that.
          Educating the public in areas mentioned is at best a long process and could be impossible. So far we have been at it for 50 years and the backlash is now growing (rise in GOP). The South easily switch parties because it was always conservative. Civil Rights was the nudge needed to push it out of the progressive party.

  • TMZ1928

    Obama and Holder have picked this case to create a political issue for the mid-terms. The Democrats have nothing else to generate votes other than stirring up the Latino and African-American population. They have Al Sharpton on their team to keep things stirred up for the next two months. It was reported by Politico that Al Sharpton was even flown to Martha’s Vineyard to meet with Valerie Jarrett about strategy. The Democrats have no shame if they are willing to railroad a police officer for political gain.

    • latebloomingrandma

      “Railroad a police officer”? Oh, that’s really rich. I think he remains uncharged with a crime, despite an unarmed young man with 6 bullets in him.

      • Do you remember “innocent until proven guilty”? Or is that something liberals also want removed from our constitution?

        • BillP

          Hey liar all grandma said was the facts (something you should give a try at least once), the police office involved has not been charged with anything and a man is dead. So where is she saying anything about innocence or guilt.

          • ” I think he remains uncharged with a crime, despite an unarmed young man with 6 bullets in him.”
            Sounds like she already convicted him to me. And again, lying is a liberal trait. Just because you lie, doesn’t mean everyone does. Some people still believe in honesty, and truth. You might want to try it sometime. Also, look up “honor”. Something you might want to work on.

          • sleepvark

            kenndebbie, your tampon is leaking all over your keyboard again. You and your fellow teabaggers wouldn’t know the truth if it came up and reported to you, most likely because you love teabagging so much it’s hard to see straight with a pair of balls in your mouth.

          • BillP

            You know you have already been proven to lie, see your all mass shooters are Democrats posting. As for honesty and truth check out the right wing media for all of its misinformation (a nicer way of lying). Well grandma wondered why someone who shot an unarmed person 6 times has been charged with a crime. If you construe that as finding the police officer guilty then every time a newspaper or other media post the facts of an incident that before a criminal charge is filed this has prejudiced the potential jury pool.
            You keep stating the lying is a Liberal trait shows the juvenile level of your comments. Based on these comments I must believe that the right wing is always telling the truth, thanks for the good laugh liar.

  • itsfun

    Labeling the candidates so people know who to vote for? Is the author of this article suggesting we should just have the choice to vote for straight Republican or Democrat? What happens to independents then? To hell with finding out what candidates stand for, just vote for a party. What was the percentage of black voters in the last election in Ferguson? People have to run for office to get elected. How many blacks ran for office in Ferguson? We don’t need more laws and rules, we need more people participating in our elections,

  • latebloomingrandma

    Since Ferguson is 80% black, and most likely 100% of them stopped for something by police ( except for toddlers), intimidated and put in jail for not being able to pay a fine for being black and being in public, I wonder how many could run for office, or even register to vote, with a “record.”?
    Yes—something is rotten in the state of Denmark.(Ferguson)

  • Whatmeworry

    Why wouldn’t they be happier if they get more free stuff and don’t pay for any of it. Its a typical Communist agenda each according to their ability each according to their needs

    • Allan Richardson

      The only people likely to get any “free stuff” in the county where I live are the billionaires who put through an “agreement” with the county Commission to get a half-a-billion dollar STADIUM for free, and put US THE PEOPLE, who were not allowed a vote, in debt for 30 years to pay for it.

      If these billionaires were as “Brave” as they call themselves, they would pay for a stadium THEMSELVES.

      • Whatmeworry

        Name 1 billionaire that lives in your county just 1

  • 1JimL1

    Just do it!