Conventional wisdom has always dictated that the path to change in America is through the ballot box. Voting is a sacred and valued right regardless of where you find yourself politically. So, one would think that our election commissions would be diverse institutions. If we are to maximize access to the polls, those agencies should be the bastions of where we can see and value diversity the most.
This is the total opposite of what we have in St. Louis city and county.
As our nation finds itself in the midst of another nationwide awakening on race relations, the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners has hired an all-male, all-white leadership team. Both the Democratic and Republican directors and both deputy directors in the city are all white men. In a city that is comprised of 45.9% African Americans and 51.6% women, the board consciously decided that diversity is not an important issue. St. Louis County’s Board of Election Commissioners is not much better; it has one white female deputy director, and the other three positions are staffed by white men.
Just like the “Arch so White” incident two years ago, we are once again asking: who was in the room when these decisions were made, and why didn’t someone say these optics are bad? Did they care?
As recently as 2017, the St. Louis city election board represented the diversity of our city. Two black women held the positions as Democratic director and Democratic deputy director, while two white males held the same Republican positions. As recently as 2014, in St. Louis County an African-American female served as the Democratic director until the newly elected Democratic county executive (Steve Stenger, now in federal prison) had her fired and replaced by a white male. She is now an elected county councilwoman.
When it comes to protecting the votes of blacks in St. Louis we have regressed. Even though black leadership in the city advocated for diversity at the board of elections, and even though there were plenty of qualified black and female applicants, there are no blacks or women leading the St. Louis city election board. I am outraged that a diverse city like St. Louis can let this happen, particularly since there is a concerted effort to limit access to the polls by Republicans – a strategy that restricts African-American access to the polls the most.
Election boards hold tremendous importance in today’s elections that include a greater use of ballot initiatives, new polling locations, new laws for absentee voting, and photo ID requirements that are still in question. Black St. Louisans seem to disproportionately bear the weight of being denied the ability to have someone in the room when decisions will be made on how to prepare for this new age of voting and how to respond to issues on election day.