Next week, Crystal Stovall will choose between two black candidates running to represent her City Council ward in Ferguson, Mo. The election is the first chance at citizen-led change in the St. Louis suburb notorious for racial turmoil.
Voters from Chicago to Anchorage, Alaska, will head to the polls Tuesday. The most closely watched contest may be in Ferguson, where the first election since riots rocked the city of 21,000 will test whether angry calls for justice translate into voter turnout.
Stovall, 33, twice marched to protest the Aug. 9 killing of a black teenager by a white police officer outside her apartment complex. But she didn’t join demonstrators who gathered nightly to chant at riot-gear-clad officers. Instead, she registered to vote.
“Protesting is fine and all that and dandy, but without any political change, nothing is going to happen,” Stovall, who is black, said on a sunny Monday morning as she pushed a stroller near where Michael Brown was shot. “You can protest till your lungs turn blue, but if the laws don’t change, it doesn’t matter.”
Civic groups have run registration and voter-education drives. The number of registered active voters in Ferguson rose 5 percent since Aug. 1, St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners data show. That compares with 2.6 percent countywide.
About 80 percent of voting-age residents in Ferguson are registered, based on census and county data. Still, the highest turnout in the previous three municipal elections was 12 percent in 2014.
“If people don’t vote in this election, we’ve got a problem,” said John Gaskin, a member of the NAACP’s national board who grew up in Ferguson. “If you want quality jobs, equal-paying jobs, if you want quality schools, if you want quality, non-biased policing, better municipal courts, so much of that starts at the voting booth.”
The council is charged with hiring people to run Ferguson’s operations and enforce its laws. City Manager John Shaw and Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned last month after the Justice Department concluded that Ferguson’s police and courts fostered racism.
Ferguson’s City Council comprises six members and the mayor. Two members are elected from each of three wards for three-year terms. All three seats up for election Tuesday have incumbents who decided not to run.
At the very least, this election is guaranteed to diversify the leadership in Ferguson, where almost 70 percent of residents are black. The council now has one black member.
Four of the eight candidates seeking the three seats are black, making the contest the most diverse in the city’s 120-year history, said Brian Fletcher, who served two terms as mayor.
This week, yard signs in green, navy and red peppered lawns. Candidate Wesley Bell, a professor, lawyer and municipal judge, tapped on doors in his ward. He pitched his plans, including more community policing. Virginia Crawford, a white nursing aide, lamented Ferguson’s reputation.
“We live here, just a small town, and now the world, you know, knows us,” Bell, who is black, told her. “We can turn this image around.”
Two hours later, Bell joined the other seven candidates on the purple-carpeted altar of Greater Grace Church for a forum. The four white men, two black men and two black women answered questions on policing, Ferguson’s image and bolstering the economy.
Two candidates, Bob Hudgins, who is white, and Lee Smith, who is black, are endorsed by groups including the Working Families Party, which supported the run of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Hudgins is running against Fletcher, who previously served two terms as mayor. During that time, Fletcher, who is white, hired Shaw, the ex-city manager. Fletcher said his experience is what Ferguson needs right now.
Stovall said she may vote for Smith, a retired factory worker.
“We are still suffering from a lot of unrest,” Smith, 76, said during Monday’s forum. “What has happened in Ferguson has not only just affected the people of Ferguson. It is an effect that has impacted the entire world. So the whole world is watching us.”