Editor's Weekly: What were voters thinking on Tuesday?

Apr 8, 2015

St. Louis area voters sent contradictory messages Tuesday. And that’s a message in itself.

In Ferguson, three new city council members were elected, changing the face of municipal government and raising the number of African-American members to three of seven (counting the mayor). But, as Jason Rosenbaum and Jo Mannies reported, that doesn’t necessarily mean that voters were inspired by the protest movement to clean house.

Of the three winners, only Ella Jones was endorsed by the coalition of protest groups active in the campaign. And none of the new city officials wants to abolish the Ferguson police department, a main goal of many protesters.

A Ferguson voter on Tuesday.
Credit Bill Greenblatt I UPI

In school elections, results were similarly at odds, as Dale Singer reported. Webster Groves defeated a tax increase and bond proposal despite warnings that this would lead to staff layoffs. Apparently, voters lacked trust in the school board’s decision that yet another tax increase was the best solution for the district’s budget pressures. But in Ferguson-Florissant and Rockwood, voters approved bond issues despite recent uproars over issues of trust.

Perhaps support for schools runs strong among voters in all those communities, but faith in public officials fluctuates. Election results represent this shifting balance.

Of course, the biggest message citizens sent Tuesday was, “We don’t care enough to vote.” There’s something ominous afoot when apathy and cynicism run so deep that participation seems pointless. With a 30 percent turnout, Ferguson provided a ray of encouragement. That was double the St. Louis County average and well above its previous level.

What does all this say about the mood of the electorate, the health of our democracy and the prospects for addressing the daunting civic challenges the region faces? Pundits like to ponder these questions. But especially at the municipal level, elections rarely provide neat answers.

Why did Ferguson residents choose a mixed bag of winners? Perhaps because different wards have different priorities. Likely because residents of a small community know and weigh many factors that outsiders don’t appreciate. That may include obscure local controversies or a candidate's personal history and character – things you know or can easily find out if you live in a small community.

News media have focused on organized efforts to register and turn out voters in Ferguson. But no force is more powerful in municipal politics than the information and motivation neighbors spread among themselves.

While sending mixed messages about how they’re feeling, Ferguson voters did achieve something significant. They created a city council that represents many disparate experiences and points of view. The election may not have settled the questions that face the community, but the new city council is better suited to grapple with them.

Pundits – and average people, too – want answers to the questions elections raise. But democracy is an unfolding tale, not a story with a simple ending. The mixed messages that voters sent this Tuesday are a reminder that people’s motivations are complicated, democracy is always a work in progress and elections are just one step in addressing the challenges we face.