Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Have the Politics of Ferguson Improved? How Can We Tell?

Guest Blogger

David Schleicher, Yale Law School

For the Symposium: Deconstructing Ferguson One Year Later

When the world’s attention focused on Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting, it revealed a fundamentally broken polity hiding in plain sight.   The Department of Justice report showed clearly that racism was rampant in the police department.  Further, the city used an aggressive and punitive system of municipal code enforcement to generate more revenue than the city got from property taxes.

One thing that stood out from this horror show of civic failure was that the targets of the city’s policies were a majority of Ferguson’s population.  The African-Americans against whom the police showed animus are a super-majority of the city’s population.  And Ferguson issued more citations and summons for code violations per year than it has people, balancing its budget through what was in effect a bizarrely inefficient set of taxes levied against a majority of its population.

How does a super-majority of the population become the target of biased government policy from a democratically elected city government? And has anything changed about local politics in the last year such that Ferguson and cities like it will not resume their predation of the majority? 

Only one year after the shooting and standing far away from the on-the-ground political developments, it is hard to tell whether anything has fundamentally changed about Ferguson’s politics.  To be sure, the first elections after the Michael Brown shooting were different from prior elections: turnout increased somewhat and minority candidates won a few races, with African-Americans now holding 3 out of 6 seats on the City Council. 

But elections right after major news stories are often quite different from elections after the buzz has faded.  For lasting change, political institutions must develop that can provide ordinary voters with clear information about candidates to facilitate popular participation.  Some such institutions seem to have popped up in the wake of the Ferguson protests.  Whether local organizations can survive and succeed in making participation in municipal politics easier for ordinary voters will be key to whether there is long-term change in how and for whom local policy works, in Ferguson and beyond. 

Popular images of local elections – town hall meetings, politicians “close to the people” – and their reality are often at odds.  As the economist Bill Fischel has argued, the key players in local politics, particularly outside of big cities, are “home voters,” or homeowners who vote in ways that serve to protect the value of their homes.  Most homeowners’ investment in their homes constitutes a huge percentage of their wealth, and they use their influence over local policies to insure their undiversified portfolios against risk.  And their longer tenure in a jurisdiction gives homeowners’ greater capacity to learn about local politicians.  As a result, home voters have both the incentives and ability to dominate local politics, particularly outside of big cities.

In suburbs where a large majority of residents are home voters, this can result in very responsive politics.  (The ordinary worries about politics in these places are about excessive majoritarianism and refusals to bear a fair share of regional burdens.)  But unlike some suburbs, only 59% of Ferguson’s population lives in owner-occupied units.  And many homes in Ferguson were underwater following the housing bubble crash, reducing their owners’ incentives to invest in local politics.  Due to general patterns of white flight and plus some odd policies, the racial disparity in homeownership and tenure rates are particularly extreme.   The general population and the population of home voters in Ferguson are very different.

Theory thus predicts minority rule in Ferguson.  Home voters will invest in politics, while other residents will ignore local elections.   Policies like pursuing fine revenue at all costs to fund services that benefit homeowners follow pretty directly from the structure of its politics.

The legal structure of Ferguson’s elections (which is far from unusual) plays into home voter dominance.  As a matter of state law, local elections are held in April of odd-years, meaning that casual voters who show up to vote for President or Governor do not take part.  The municipal election before the Michael Brown shooting saw about 11% turnout, and had a majority white electorate in a city that is 67% African-American, despite the fact that voters of all races turn out at roughly the same rate in Presidential elections.  Further, the city uses a “council-manager” system, where power is wielded by the city council and a professional city manager. Ordinary voters may be able make judgments about one local official, crediting or blaming a Mayor for a city’s successes or failures.  But under a council-manager system, they are forced to make judgments about a bunch of legislators to whom it is difficult to tie policies. Home voters have both the capacity and incentives to overcome these information problems; most transients and renters do not. 

These problems are not unique to poor suburbs like Ferguson.  Even in big cities, majorities rarely make their voices heard in local politics.   From school board races to zoning hearings, from District Attorney elections to city council primaries, there is just very little evidence that the opinions of majorities matter much at all in local politics. 

This is a product of the low-information nature of local politics.  In national politics, voters use party labels – Democrats and Republicans – to overcome a lack of information about candidates.  As long as you have opinions about President Obama or President Bush, you can vote for Congress substantially as if you were informed.  But most local elections, including those in Ferguson, are non-partisan, leaving voters without party cues to give them information when making selections in low-profile races.  Further, even where partisan elections are held, party labels provide only a little information in local elections.  Voters ally with parties on national issues, and the correlation between preferences about national issues (e.g. income taxes, war) and the issues that dominate local politics (zoning, policing, educational methods) is weak.  Further, almost all big cities with partisan elections are dominated by one party, and minority parties find it difficult (for both informational and legal reasons) to rebrand themselves at the local level. This pushes political competition into primaries, which lack party labels to differentiate the candidates.  The result is that many local elections are low-turnout, low-information affairs.  Only heavily involved homeowners and organized local interest groups have much in the way of influence.  Some elections stand outside of this—in the highest profile Mayoral races, ordinary voters can develop independent assessments of candidates. But most of the officials of most local governments are chosen by home voters and squeaky wheels and without much in the way of general interest or influence.

The absence of competitive elections translates directly into local policy.  When big cities consider zoning changes, they listen heavily to nearby homeowners but little to the needs of renters citywide who would like more housing to be constructed.  When liquor licenses are considered, the neighbors who show up for meetings and vote in primaries win out against the interests of far-flung patrons. And so forth.

Can local politics be any other way? To overcome the burdens created by a lack of information about local politicians, the only answer is to create better tools for getting voters information.  One way to do this is to make local elections high profile.  In elections following big news events, voters do in fact pay attention; the election following the Michael Brown shooting is one such event.  But usually attention fades and the ordinary home voter politics returns

Another way would be to create something like locally-focused political parties or “quasi-parties”.  I’ve written about how election laws might be changed to enable this, but private groups could achieve at least some of the same ends by creating durable institutions that endorse politicians who support a single vision for city government.   Such institutions have popped up in a few cities over time.  Where they exist, they provide voters with the ability to harness popular opinion in local elections

In order to avoid returning to the pre-Michael Brown shooting political status quo, Ferguson will need organizational developments devoted to making politics easier for ordinary voters to understand.  The success of such developments locally will determine how well Ferguson’s politics works once attention fades. 

David Schleicher is Associate Professor of Law at Yale Law School. You can reach him by e-mail at david.schleicher at

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