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Plaintiffs in Ferguson-Florissant voting rights case want cumulative voting

Ferguson resident Shirlissa Pruitt asks about keeping more resources in her part of the school district  at a town hall meeting on Thursday. Sept. 22, 2016.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson resident Shirlissa Pruitt asks about keeping more resources in her part of the school district at a town hall meeting Thursday.

Updated Sept. 29 with the plaintiff’s choice — The American Civil Liberties Union and the Missouri NAACP are asking the judge in their ongoing voting rights case to consider changing Ferguson-Florissant School Board elections to a cumulative voting system.

Cumulative voting allows a voter to cast multiple votes for the same candidate. For instance, if three slots on the school board are open but a voter only likes one candidate, he or she can cast up to three votes for the same candidate.

“We believe that cumulative voting is the one that will really both be able to correct the discrimination there and be a very accessible, user-friendly so to speak system,” said Julie Ebenstein, an ACLU attorney representing the NAACP and its co-plaintiffs. “It has a few benefits, like it can grow if the population does shift or change. It gives voters a little more flexibility to form coalitions, whether they prefer candidates by region or whatever other factor.”

In a brief filed late Wednesday the ACLU and the NAACP also give the judge two other options: one that divides the district into seven geographic areas with a board member representing each area, and another with 2 at-large members and 5 members representing different geographic areas.

“We were able to make clear in the brief that we think cumulative would be a good solution, but at the end of the day it’s really up to the court to decide,” Ebenstein said.

The Ferguson-Florissant School District has until Oct. 14 to file its proposed voting plan. The judge will then decide which plan to put in place.

Elections are currently on hold while the judge decides what voting method should be in place. He ruled in August that the current at-large voting system dilutes the strength of black voters.

Original story from Sept. 22, 2016 — The Missouri NAACP and its co-plaintiffs in a suit over voting rights in the Ferguson-Florissant School District have less than a week to decide how they would prefer school board members to be elected. A federal judge has ruled that the existing system voting for at-large school board members makes it harder for black voters to elect their preferred candidates in the district. 

They held a town hall meeting Thursday evening at Wellspring Church in Ferguson to share the options they are considering and get community feedback.

Wellspring's pastor, the Rev. Willis Johnson, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He said Thursday the group wants public input because the suit is about making their vote count.

Johnson said they want "people encouraged and empowered, feeling like they have ownership, which is not something that people have felt in this community around their educational process.”

Julie Ebenstein, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights project, laid out four options for school board elections: cumulative voting and three geographic configurations.

One map would divide the district into five areas and retain two at large board members. Another would divide the school district into seven regions, with one board member per region. The third map would divide the district two ways: The first division would be in five parts, each with its own board member; the other division would be in two, again with each electing a board member. 

Cumulative voting would give each person more than one vote. The person could give each vote to a different candidate or give all the votes to one candidate.

“What cumulative voting lets you do is very strongly support the candidate you feel represents you … whether that’s geography, race (or what they believe),” Ebenstein explained.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri NAACP and its co-plaintiffs.

Ebenstein said local elections are important because they directly impact people’s lives.

“It effects how their children are treated, what kind of education their family gets, it really effects their day to day in a way national elections don’t always do,” Ebenstein said.

About 30 people attended the town hall, including at least one former school board member.

Those who were there expressed confusion about the options and asked many clarifying questions. The main concern was whether the new voting method would be in place in time for school board elections to go smoothly next April.

Ebenstein said while the judge ruled last month to pause elections until a new system in place, he wants everything to be decided in time for candidate filing in December.

Cindy Ormsby, an attorney for the Ferguson-Florissant School District said the district is waiting on the NAACP to file its proposed voting methods before offering its own proposal.

The district has also filed an interlocutory appeal on some questions of the law from the judge’s ruling last month.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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