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Court orders cumulative voting in Ferguson-Florissant School Board elections

File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Nov. 22 with comments from plaintiff Willis Johnson. — A federal judge has ordered the Ferguson-Florissant School District to vote for its board members using cumulative voting.

Judge Rodney Sippel's order, filed Monday, closes a nearly 2-year-old civil rights challenge to the way the district has run school board elections. Sippel ruled in August that the old method of selecting candidates in at-large elections violated the federal Voting Rights Act, and halted the April 2017 school board elections until a solution could be found.

"The School District’s proposal to maintain the current system is legally unacceptable," Sippel wrote in Monday's order.

"Plaintiffs’ proposal to implement an at-large cumulative voting system with staggered terms and off-cycle elections, preceded by a voter education program, is a legally acceptable remedy that will correct the Section 2 violation."

In addition, Sippel ordered the district and the plaintiffs to develop a voter education program that would explain cumulative voting, which allows a voter to cast multiple votes for the candidate he or she likes best.

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

The demand for an educational campaign was a relief to Willis Johnson, the pastor at Wellspring Church and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

"We need to ensure clarity around the process, and about the power people have," he said. "This is one of a number of steps needed to make the district equitable and successful. Now, people must honor that right and autonomy by participating."

Cumulative voting was the solution preferred by the plaintiffs and their attorneys. The school district had asked Sippel to simply approve its old election process, something the judge declined to do in the starkest of terms.

"Their argument seems to be that I should forgo the detailed analysis I conducted of all of the evidence and expert analysis presented over the course of a six-day trial, accept their expert’s analysis of the 2016 election results without giving the Plaintiffs a chance to respond and without considering any context, and simply conclude that because there are currently three African Americans (who, they argue, are all Black-preferred candidates) on the Ferguson-Florissant School Board, the current system results in proportionality and is thus legally acceptable and superior to any of the systems Plaintiff propose. I decline to do so."

In response to a request for comment, the district's attorney, Cindy Ormsby said, "The board will take the weekend to digest this order and then meet some time next week to discuss whether or not to appeal. The decision will be up to the board."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which helped represent the plaintiffs, applauded the ruling.

"The African-American community in the Ferguson-Florissant School District will now be able to hold its government accountable and ensure that the school board is responsive to its needs,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “This is a win for every student in the district.”

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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