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Voter registration surges in Ferguson

It's a sign that the police killing of Michael Brown could spark long-lasting political change in a city where blacks are badly under-represented in government.
Shiron Hagens, right, helps resident Rita Foley register to vote at a rally in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 30, 2014.
Shiron Hagens, right, helps resident Rita Foley register to vote at a rally in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 30, 2014.

Update: Ferguson election officials said on Oct. 7 that they made a mistake and only 128 people had registered

Ferguson, Missouri, has seen a surge in voter registration since the shooting death of Michael Brown—a sign that the killing could spark long-lasting political change.

Since the Aug. 9 shooting, 4,839 people have registered to vote in St. Louis County, USA Today reports. About 68% are Ferguson residents.

There’s no data on the race of the new registrants, but black community leaders have led a well-publicized voter registration drive since Brown’s death sparked weeks of protests and sporadic violence.

Two out of three Ferguson residents are black, but five of the city’s six city council members, as well as its mayor, are white—a disparity that has received widespread attention since the unrest began.

If those newly registered voters come to the polls, they could make a major difference. The city has a population of 21,000, and just 12.3% of eligible voters turned out for Ferguson’s local elections in April, according to numbers provided by the county.

PHOTO ESSAY: How the crisis in Ferguson unfolded, in photographs

Data suggests turnout among Ferguson’s black residents is far lower than among whites. There are several reasons for that: Blacks tend to be newer arrivals in Ferguson, and more transient, than whites. And Ferguson’s elections are held in April, which almost always correlates with lower black turnout.

Less than two weeks after Brown’s death, Antonio French, a local alderman, set up an office in Ferguson to serve as a headquarters for a voter registration and mobilization effort. Other activists have placed registration tables at the site of Brown’s death, and outside the convenience store on Florissant Avenue where he is said to have stolen cigars not long before being killed.

Not everyone is happy about the drive for increased participation. Matt Wills, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, said setting up a registration booth at the site of Brown's death was “fanning the political flames.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 4,389 people have registered to vote in St. Louis County; the number is 4,839. About 68%, not 75%, are Ferguson residents.