Imagine a split screen view of St. Louis. In one image, events in Ferguson are driving intense interest in a daunting array of community issues. They can’t be resolved without leadership from elected officials. In the other image, candidates are running for office in an election Tuesday that has attracted almost no interest.
What’s wrong with this picture? In a democracy, voters hold the ultimate power. Yet many citizens are having a hard time seeing what difference their votes will make.
There are good reasons they feel this way. For one thing, the quirks of Missouri’s election cycle almost guarantee that this year’s election will be a snoozer.
Unlike Illinois, where the governor’s race is up for grabs, the only statewide office on the Missouri ballot is auditor. And incumbent Republican Tom Schweich has no Democratic opponent. Yes, Schweich has talked about some Ferguson-related topics, but his race is hardly the means for grappling with complicated questions of statewide policy and leadership.
Most of Missouri’s state house and senate seats are similarly non-competitive. That’s what happens when legislatures draw lines to create safe districts -- a tactic that serves the mutual self-interest of both major political parties. There are exceptions, including interesting senate battles between Democrat Jill Schupp and Republican Jay Ashcroft in St. Louis County and between Republican Paul Wieland and Democrat Jeff Roorda in Jefferson County. But no one expects a major shift in overall Republican dominance in the legislature.
Even Missouri’s proposed state constitutional amendments are commanding little attention this year. Supporters of a controversial challenge to teacher tenure gave up campaigning for it months ago. The other three measures deal with early voting, evidence rules in sex crime prosecutions and the governor’s power to withhold money.
At the federal level, more is at stake. Republicans hope to win the Senate and bolster their numbers in the House. One hot race involves incumbent Democrat Bill Enyart and Republican Michael Bost in an Illinois district that includes part of the St. Louis area. But in Missouri, House members are expected to win re-election easily.
That leaves the St. Louis County executive race as the most interesting local contest and the primary forum where politics intersects with Ferguson issues. Some African-American leaders are supporting Republican Rick Stream or write-in candidate Zaki Baruti. That’s a rebuke to Democratic candidate Steve Stenger and his ally, county prosecutor Bob McCulloch. Also, both Stenger and Stream have discussed plans to tackle various challenges, including north county’s economy.
Of course, the county executive’s leadership will be important. But his actual authority on matters related to Ferguson is limited. No political leader is supposed to influence the investigation of Michael Brown’s shooting or whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson gets indicted.
As for the deeper issues – police-community relations, municipal courts, school quality, economic opportunity and so on – responsibility is divided. Involved citizens, community and faith leaders, private businesses and various other parties all play a role. Ultimately, state and federal officials set overall policy and can provide resources and incentives. Municipal officials make the detailed rules and implement them within those parameters.
But municipal officials are not on the ballot next week. And while a few state legislators have been highly visible talking about or participating in the protests, most are not saying much about Ferguson beyond platitudes.
In a civics class version of democracy, candidates would be competitive, difficult issues would be debated and choices would be clear. In the real world, the playing field favors incumbents, candidates avoid deep discussion of controversial issues and much of the debate gets reduced to sound bites and attack ads. No wonder citizens are wondering whether it’s worth the effort to vote.
Yet the answer is obvious. In the real world, nothing will change as long as voter apathy and aversion continue to trump involvement. In the real world, you have one simple choice: Vote or don’t. You may not like an electoral system that is so obviously imperfect. But do you really want to cede control of it to someone else?