BY ZOLTAN HAJNAL
Most of the calls for reform in the wake of Ferguson have focused almost entirely on the criminal justice system. That focus is certainly warranted given the specific events that spurred the protest. Moreover, there are many positive steps that President Obama’s new Task Force on 21st Century Policing can undertake.
But the underlying problem is much broader than the police. The fact that African Americans had almost no representation in city government shaped almost everything that happened in that Missouri suburb. The figures are stark. Blacks represent two-thirds of the city population, yet the mayor, 5 of 6 city council members, six of seven school board members, and 50 of 53 police officers are all not black.
Ferguson is not alone. Across the nation, racial and ethnic minorities are grossly underrepresented in city government. African Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the population but only 4.3 percent of city councils and 2 percent of all mayors. The figures for Latinos and Asian Americans are even worse.
Fortunately, solutions to minority under-representation that are effective and relatively easy to initiate are available. By simply changing the timing of local elections we could substantially alter who votes, who wins office, and the types of policies that local governments pursue. My research demonstrates that moving from stand-alone local elections – the system that is in place in Ferguson – to on-cycle elections which occur on the same date as statewide and national contests has the potential to dramatically increase the number and representativeness of the local voting population. By moving the dates of local elections to coincide with statewide primaries or general elections, it becomes almost costless for voters who participate in higher turnout statewide elections to also vote in local elections – they need only check off names further down the ballot.
Changes in election timing are relatively easy to enact. A municipal ordinance is all that is required in most places. Moreover, cities change their electoral timing regularly... Indeed, the primary motivation for this move has usually been cost savings.
The data are unequivocal. Across the nation, turnout in cities with on-cycle elections is, all else equal, almost double that of turnout in cities with off-cycle elections. With one small step, 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 vast majority of cities currently hold off-cycle elections, 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 the mayor’s office.
There are also downstream effects for what local government does. 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.
[There are] critical ripple effects for minority representation in office... increasing turnout could eliminate up to a third of the underrepresentation of minorities on city councils and in the mayor’s office.
Coming back full circle to Ferguson, my research with Jessica Trounstine of UC Merced shows that these kinds of changes can reduce black frustration. 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 become as happy as whites with local government.
Changes in election timing are relatively easy to enact. A municipal ordinance is all that is required in most places. Moreover, cities change their electoral timing regularly. A survey in California found that more than 40 percent of cities in that state had made a change in the timing of municipal elections in recent years. States can also effect change. Arizona has already passed legislation mandating that many of its cities hold local elections that coincide with statewide contests. Citizens can also get involved. In states with direct democracy, we could put local election timing on the statewide or local ballot.
What makes timing even more 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. Indeed, the primary motivation for this move has usually 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, Calif., for example, estimated that the cost of running a stand-alone election would be $58,000—more than twice as much as the $25,000 estimate for running an on-cycle election.
Incumbent office holders will probably resist this reform. But the change is too simple and too powerful to be ignored. With a small, cost-saving measure we could do much to prevent future Fergusons from erupting all around the country.