Voter participation in Ferguson, Missouri, has been poor of late, with just 12% turnout in the most recent election. As the Rev. Al Sharpton, host of msnbc’s “Politics Nation,” said at the Greater Grace Church’s during Sunday services, “You all have got to start voting and showing up. 12% turnout is an insult to your children.”
With this in mind, as we discussed yesterday, some in the community have set up a tent in Ferguson to host a voter-registration drive. As one volunteer put it, “We’re trying to make young people understand that this is how to change things.”
When I noted this on Twitter yesterday, I was surprised by conservatives complaining about the voter-registration efforts. Apparently, I wildly underestimated how upset the right would be about this. Breitbart.com, a prominent far-right website, reported this morning, “Republicans are criticizing efforts by liberal organizers to set up voter registration booths at the site where Missouri teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a local police officer.”
In an interview with Breitbart News, Missouri RNC executive director Matt Wills expressed outrage about the reports.“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Wills said, “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”
Wills is described by the RNC as the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
I’ll confess, it never occurred to me conservatives would describe a voter-registration drive as “disgusting.” It’s worth fleshing out how and why some on the right have reached this conclusion.
If I understand the Republican argument, the concern is one over exploitation – for Ferguson residents to host a voter-registration drive in the midst of protests is, as one critic put it, evidence of “liberals” using “racially divisive controversies for political gain.”
I’m not sure if there’s any evidence that “liberals” are responsible for registering people to vote, but that’s certainly one way to look at it.
That said, I hope those who are “disgusted” by the voter-registration drive will take a moment to consider a different perspective.
It’s become clear over the last week or so that many in Ferguson feel powerless and alienated in their own community. It’s led to a disengagement in public affairs, as evidenced by 12% voter turnout, and a powder-keg of frustration.
But some in the community have decided that this crisis can also be a wake-up call – those who want to make a meaningful difference have to overcome cynicism and complacency when it comes to civic affairs. Indeed, for all the anger that’s evident in this St. Louis suburb, some have decided to tell their friends and neighbors that it’s time to direct their frustrations into positive, constructive action.
And that starts with getting registered to vote.
That’s not exploitation. That’s also not “using” a crisis for “partisan gain.” If officials from the DNC were walking along Florissant Avenue, telling people to vote Democratic while avoiding tear-gas canisters, Republican criticism would be understandable.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
When it comes to civic engagement, there’s a small barrier to entry: getting registered to vote. Some in Ferguson believe it’d be helpful to channel local anger into a more engaged citizenry, all the while telling them that real change can and should come at the ballot box.
It appears that some on the right find this “disgusting,” which is a shame. I’m afraid that says more about those raising the complaints than it does those registering citizens to vote.