(Reuters) - Residents in Ferguson, Missouri, cast their votes on Tuesday in a closely watched election seen as a critical step toward ending racially discriminatory practices that thrust the St. Louis suburb into the national spotlight last year.
Eight candidates, including four African-Americans, are vying for three seats on the six-member City Council in Ferguson, where two-thirds of residents are black but the city’s leadership has been long dominated by whites.
Ferguson has about 21,000 residents. But it has had only two black council members since its incorporation in 1894, including Councilman Dwayne James, who is not up for re-election.
A heavy thunderstorm rolled through the area on Tuesday morning, which some feared could discourage turnout, but the rain ended by afternoon and hopes for turnout climbed.
State Representative Courtney Curtis, a Ferguson resident who voted on Tuesday, said the election was pivotal.
“It could mean one of two things - one that the mission was accomplished after seven months of protests and all we’ve been through,” Curtis said. “Or it could also go the other way, and we’ll find that people didn’t care enough to make a change.”
No incumbents are running, and advocates have said it is imperative that change-minded individuals gain seats on the council, which will be charged with hiring a new city manager, who in turn hires and supervises all city employees, including the police chief, with the exception of the city clerk.
Both the previous chief and manager resigned, as did Ferguson’s municipal judge, after the U.S. Justice Department said in March that it found widespread racially discriminatory practices in the police department and the municipal court.
The Justice Department launched the investigation after a white Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, 18, an unarmed African-American in August. The shooting triggered months of sometimes violent protests and spurred a national debate over police treatment of minorities.
Community activists in Ferguson say a lack of adequate representation for African-Americans has contributed to a range of racially discriminatory practices by police and city leaders.
“This may be a little municipal election, but ... city council can have a tremendous impact in the community,” attorney Denise Lieberman, who has helped run a voter protection program for the Advancement Project civil rights organization, told Reuters.
Black representation is guaranteed to double to two after Tuesday’s election and could increase to three seats.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said reforms are already underway and do not depend upon new council members.
“People in general want to see change,” Knowles said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think any candidate who is running for office or anyone on the current City Council has said they want to keep things the way they are.”
Knowles is considered a seventh member of the council, so the new members would join four incumbents.
Municipal Judge Wesley Bell and retiree Lee Smith, both African-American, are running for a seat in the ward where Brown lived.
Two black candidates, Ella Jones and Adrienne Hawkins, and two white candidates, Mike McGrath and Doyle McClellan, are running for a second seat. Former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher and Bob Hudgins, both white, are running for a third seat.
Voter turnout in Ferguson for local elections historically runs from 10 percent to 40 percent, according to St. Louis County records, though voter registration was up about 4.6 percent in the past nine months to more than 12,000 voters.
Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Missouri; Editing by Eric Beech and Dan Grebler