Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Race, reforms eyed as Ferguson, Missouri, voters head to polls

Ferguson is a city in St. Louis County, Missouri, United States.

It is part of the Greater St. Louis metropolitan area. The population was 21,203 at the 2010 census.

Residents in Ferguson, Missouri, cast their votes on Tuesday in a closely watched election seen as a critical step toward ending racially discriminatory practices that thrust the St. Louis suburb into the national spotlight last year.

Eight candidates, including four African-Americans, are vying for three seats on the six-member City Council in Ferguson, where two-thirds of residents are black but the city's leadership has been long dominated by whites.

Ferguson has about 21,000 residents. But it has had only two black council members since its incorporation in 1894, including Councilman Dwayne James, who is not up for re-election.

A heavy thunderstorm rolled through the area on Tuesday morning, which some feared could discourage turnout. Advocates spread through the community to encourage people to vote.

"I'm positive. People are coming out, but the weather is not helping," said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson Township who has been leading voter turnout efforts.

Bynes said she was handing out ponchos and umbrellas at polling sites in Ferguson.

No incumbents are running, and advocates have said it is imperative that change-minded individuals gain seats on the council, which will be charged with hiring a new police chief and city manager.

Both the previous chief and manager resigned, as did Ferguson's municipal judge, after the U.S. Justice Department said in March that it found widespread racially discriminatory practices in the police department and the municipal court.

The Justice Department launched the investigation after a white Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, 18, an unarmed African-American. The shooting triggered months of sometimes violent protests and spurred a national debate over police treatment of minorities.

Community activists in Ferguson say a lack of adequate representation for African-Americans has contributed to a range of racially discriminatory practices by police and city leaders.

"This may be a little municipal election, but ... city council can have a tremendous impact in the community," said attorney Denise Lieberman, who has helped run a voter protection program for the Advancement Project civil rights organization.

"These local leaders make important and significant decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of people," Lieberman told Reuters.

Black representation is guaranteed to double to two after Tuesday's election and could increase to three seats.

Municipal Judge Wesley Bell and retiree Lee Smith, both African-American, are running for a seat in the ward where Brown lived.

Two black candidates and two white candidates are running for a second seat: Ella Jones, Adrienne Hawkins, Mike McGrath and Doyle McClellan. Former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher and Bob Hudgins, both white, are running for a third seat.

Voter turnout in Ferguson for local elections historically runs from 10 percent to 40 percent, according to St. Louis County records, though voter registration was up about 4.6 percent in the past nine months to more than 12,000 voters.

Source Reuters

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