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:
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.
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!