Sunday, August 17, 2014

You don't get better government from electoral gimmicks

Just about every article about the police shooting of Mike Brown, the protests in Ferguson, MO, and authorities' varieties of inflammatory responses includes a paragraph like this one:

Although about two in three Ferguson residents are black, its mayor and five of its six City Council members are white. Only three of the town’s 53 police officers are black. ... This year, community members voiced anger after the all-white, seven-member school board for the Ferguson-Florissant district pushed aside its black superintendent for unrevealed reasons. That spurred several blacks to run for three board positions up for election, but only one won a seat.

At the Washington Post's political science blog, the Monkey Cage, Brian Schaffner, Wouter Van Erve and Ray LaRaja point out several structural factors in the local political polity (in addition to pervasive racism) that account for this gross under-representation of African-Americans.

Ferguson holds municipal elections in April of odd-numbered years. In doing so, the town is hardly unique. Approximately three-fourths of American municipalities hold their elections in odd years, a Progressive-era reform intended to shield municipal elections from the partisan politics of national contests, but one that has been shown to have a dramatic effect on reducing turnout.

Ferguson also holds nonpartisan elections (where party labels do not appear on the ballot), another Progressive reform, and one that has been shown to reduce both what citizens know about candidates as well as their likelihood of voting. These consequences are worse for people with less education and less income.

The rest of the article goes on to explicate how this works in practice and is shown to ensure racially skewed outcomes. It is worth following the link to see some revealing charts.

But what I want to highlight is that Ferguson's and St. Louis County's peculiarly exclusionary electoral system was the product of a long-past technocratic "reform" that proved to have grossly anti-democratic (small "d") and racially biased consequences.

The Progressives of the early 20th century hoped to root out corruption and partisanship in the fractious democracy of their era. Some of their reforms probably gave a real boost to democracy, most especially direct election of Senators. (Can you imagine that states used to name their senators though a bout of legislative horse trading and corporate bribery? Sure you can.) Other electoral gimmicks were less clearly positive innovations. In addition to off-season elections and excluding party labels from some ballots, we can thank this reform movement for such features of our electoral scene as ballot initiatives and recall elections whose value many might question.

This seems worth raising because California has lately shown its penchant for responding to weak governance with a couple of more modern technocratic electoral gimmicks: the top two primary and in some cities, ranked choice voting. The first too often turns November elections into intra-party contests while excluding smaller parties. The latter usually obscures the clarity of candidates' political positioning in contests run under it. It is simply a fantasy that we'll get "better" elections, "better" candidates, "better" government by messing around with the rules. What makes for better governance is increased citizen engagement and participation -- and circumstances in which somebody can govern.

In fact, both criteria are currently being met in California and the state should be a beacon to the nation in how to recover from our lost decade. Citizen engagement is up because unions and community organizations have mastered the techniques of voter mobilization. This increased participation, particularly in communities of color, has marginalized the sclerotic Republican party, so a Democratic governor can actually govern with a Democratic legislature. One-party dominance may eventually generate its own ills, but for the moment, California democracy is working much better than most states. This didn't result from electoral gimmicks -- it is a consequence of more democracy and an engaged population. Democracy is not preserved or extended by technocratic fixes -- it is preserved and nurtured by people getting in there and mobilizing in elections!
It's not just me pointing out that, in addition to public protest, the people of Ferguson need to organize themselves to vote. Here's Mary Ann McGivern reporting from a neighborhood meeting:

A coalition had already formed that includes the Tauheed Youth Organization, Organization for Black Struggle, New Black Panther Party, Moorish Science Temple, Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, Nation of Islam - Mosque 28, and the Universal African Peoples Organization. The emcee, Zaki Baruti, called on us to join an organization. You can't stand for justice alone, he said. And he and other speakers at many events said, "Vote." Ferguson's white governance would seem evidence that blacks there haven't been voting, and the black St. Louis County Executive just lost a primary race in a nasty fight.


Rain Trueax said...

The problem we are facing in analyzing this situation, beyond the superficial photos or often superficial stories we see, is we cannot know the roots of what led to it. If the school board is all white when 70% of the citizens are black, does that mean the blacks are not voting?

Another issue I am interested in but have no idea how to find out-- at least currently-- when the black unemployment rate is higher than white, is that related to education or even lack of interest in working with some young people who have found other more lucrative ways to make money that don't require jobs?

If it's schools, then it's a place to start. If it's gang/drug affiliations, that's tougher. Throw a young man in prison for dealing and what do you end up with-- a better informed criminal when he gets out?

The looting was almost all the younger men (based on the photos); and we have seen a lot of statistics on how bad unemployment is in young men in our country (white too) but what we don't know is why.

From what I've read and i've been also reading about it, the police were overreaching way before this last episode, which may or may not be the same situation. Frankly police don't ask you to approach them with your hands up. They want you flat out on the ground and hands behind your back or spreadeagled against a car. For a guy as big as the teen, to approach anybody with his hands in the air would be threatening. That doesn't mean I say the police officer is innocent in this. I guess, no matter what that he's ruined his life as well as taken a life. There has to be a fall-guy but from what I've read on what was happening there before this, this was a police force using gestapo techniques for quite awhile. Stopping people routinely, just to try and find something wrong, is not something most of us would tolerate in a government; and yet we didn't know enough about what was going on to recognize the threat.

A town near to us does some of that and it's not just to minorities. They have a very aggressive police force but some of this has gone beyond that.

In my own rant, I haven't felt like writing about it simply because I wouldn't know what to say. Being a moderate, I often tend to see both sides of situations. This is one of those cases. Some seems obviously wrong but then you ask-- how'd we get there and it gets stickier. :(

Rain Trueax said...

I've read since that Ferguson high schools are no longer accredited because their scores were so low. That pretty much is a dead-end street and very sad. Do parents not care or is this generation after generation where care or not, they are helpless? It's more like an occupied culture than one that is part of the broader culture. One article said it's like Detroit and I would assume parts of Chicago. Tragic

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