Since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, there has been plenty of protests and unrest, but here's another significant development: a huge spike in voter registration, suggesting that Ferguson residents plan on taking to the ballot box, as well as the streets, to voice their desire for political change.
UPDATE: That isn't really true. Here's our story published after the county election board announced the new voter numbers it released were wildly inflated: Figures Showing Huge Jump in Ferguson Voter Registration are Very Inaccurate.
Our original story continues below.
USA Today reports that 4,839 people in St. Louis County have registered to vote since the August 9 shooting -- and 3,287 of those new voters live in Ferguson, a city with a population of about 21,000 and an average voter turnout of only 12 percent in previous elections.
"The amount of voter apathy has been extremely disappointing," Ferguson committeewoman Patricia Bynes tells Daily RFT. "But now people are understanding that they need to vote."
More than 3,000 new voters is significant. Ferguson mayor James Knowles, who has been the subject of criticism since Brown's death, ran unopposed his last election and won with 97 percent of the vote -- but only got 1,324 votes.
More than 60 percent of the Ferguson population is black, but five of the city's six council members are white, as well as Knowles. That lack of representative leadership has been a major debate point during the past two months, spurring activists to make sure more black voters participate in elections.
Bynes, who has been involved directly with voter-registration drives, says much of the voter-registration push has focused on areas that have historically low representation, as well as where people tend to congregate, such as concerts and areas around the Canfield Apartments where Brown was killed.
The race of registered voters is not recorded, and in Missouri, new voters are not required to choose a party. There has been a lot of voter-registration activity near protest areas, sometimes conducted by protesters themselves, which may give some hint to the political leanings of these new, energized voters.
Lost Voices, a group of young protesters who have vowed to protest until the arrest of Darren Wilson, was registering voters when it was encamped in a parking lot behind Red's Barbecue on West Florissant. Several members of the group told Daily RFT last month that they hadn't been registered until they started signing others up.
Heal STL, the organization started by St. Louis alderman Antonio French -- a constant presence at protests and a sharp critic of the policing situation in Ferguson -- has made voter registration one of its main goals since beginning operations in August. Located on West Florissant Avenue, the nonprofit is in the heart of much of the Ferguson activism, but it travels all over the larger metro area to sign up new voters.
Increased black voter turnout has been championed by people on polar extremes of the Ferguson debate, from Reverend Al Sharpton during speeches to Ferguson residents to Darren Wilson protesters in O'Fallon (one such protester held a sign at a pro-Wilson fundraiser criticizing Ferguson protests that said, "Want change? Vote -- don't showboat").
But Bynes says that although she's thrilled to see new voters sign up in Ferguson, she hopes the momentum can be sustained.
"Voter registration is the very first step. The next step is for people to show up to the November and April municipal elections and then stay engaged," she says. "We cannot vote and walk away anymore. We have to stay engaged."
Anthony Gray, an attorney for Michael Brown's family, tells USA Today that supporters of Brown will vote in new leadership that better represents the needs of the black community.
"It could completely change the political landscape, the power structure [and] the decision making," Gray says. "The service to the African American community would almost quadruple because they would be viewed as a credible and legitimate voting bloc."
As for new candidates, that's a different story. As of now, there are no clear choices for voters who want to change the political leadership in Ferguson. That lack of choice has caused some protesters to urge voters to write in "Michael Brown" to protest St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, who is also running unopposed this November.
But Bynes says it's just a matter of time before new leaders emerge.
"What's going on is that leadership is emerging, and that's the next process: to see people step forward and not just say 'We want to do this,' but who actually want to do work," she says.
Follow Ray Downs on Twitter:
E-mail him at Ray.Downs@RiverfrontTimes.com.