Sort by

On Election Day, Consider Underrepresentation

Lenore Palladino

Election Day is a crucial time to reflect on the fact that our elected officials, and candidates running for office, don’t look like America.

The tragic shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri drew national attention to the racial disparities between the city’s political establishment and the community they ostensibly represent. Ferguson is 67% African-American, but its City Council has just one African American member.

But Ferguson is not alone. Demos’ new Explainer finds that while Ferguson’s underrepresentation of African Americans is an extreme case, it’s nevertheless mirrored in local governments across the country. In fact, more than 1.2 million African Americans in 175 communities have councils that are deeply unrepresentative by race.

One in every six African Americans lacks full representation on his or her local council, compared to just one in 66 whites. And 77,000 African Americans live in communities in which they make up more than half the population but hold only one or no seats on the local council.

This is happening across the country, in places like Vienna, Georgia, where 73% of the population is African American—yet there is not a single black councilmember representing them. Where the median household income sits at $23,343—just under half of the median household income for the state of Georgia. With unrepresentative elected leadership, is it a surprise that policies to improve wages for low-income workers aren’t top priority?

Traditionally, citizens who successfully navigate through our needless voting red tape are older, whiter, wealthier and more conservative than the rest of the country. In addition, they’re more opposed to policies that would promote economic mobility and security than the general public. New research reveals the presence of better economic policies (such as higher minimum wages, stronger anti-predatory lending protections and more generous children’s health care benefits) in areas with higher turnout among lower-income citizens.

Where the best interests of the community are represented, society thrives. In Matteson, Illinois, 83% of the population is African American, and the City Council boasts over a 100% representation rate. The city’s median household income is $63,821—well above the state median.

The American democratic experiment is at a turning point. The voting age population is more diverse, progressive, and vocal than ever. It's unacceptable when government at any level still fails to reflect this great diversity, and to respond to the will of all the people.