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Federal court declares Ferguson-Florissant school board elections violate Voting Rights Act

Ferguson-Florissant parent Redditt Hudson (left), attorney Dale Ho, and past school candidate Willis Johnson at a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Ferguson-Florissant schools on December 18.
File | Diane Balogh | ACLU of Missouri

Updated at 2:25 p.m. July 3 with comments from the ACLU — A federal appeals court in St. Louis has ruled that the way the Ferguson-Florissant School District elects its board members violates the rights of black voters in the district.

A three-judge panel on Tuesday determined that Ferguson-Florissant’s at-large election means black voters have “less opportunity to elect their preferred candidate than other members of the electorate,” even though three-fourths of the district's students are black. The decision upholds a 2016 lower court ruling.

The ruling means that Ferguson-Florissant school board elections in April 2019 woulduse what’s known as cumulative voting. The system allows voters to give their preferred candidate as many votes as there are open seats — for example, in an election with two open seats, a district resident could cast a vote for two people, or put both their votes toward a single candidate.

The ACLU of Missouri, the organization’s national voting rights arm, and the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP sued the district in 2014, alleging that the at-large method ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act.

Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, hailed the unanimous opinion.

“The decision takes another step toward dismantling systemic bias in local elections, and ensuring that all communities’ interests are equally represented,” she said in a statement.

At-large voting in the district has been highly racially polarized, said the ACLU of Missouri’s executive director Jeffrey Mittman. Black voters routinely supported black candidates, and white voters supported the white candidates.

“You hope to get to a day when there isn’t racially polarized voting,” Mittman said. “With the opportunity for cumulative voting, even if there is a minority of voters, they have an opportunity to say, we at least get some voice on the board.”

Kevin Hampton, Ferguson-Florissant’s director of communications, said the district is reviewing the decision, and the board will meet at a later date to discuss its options.

For years, Ferguson-Florissant has elected its school board in at-large elections. Two or three seats on the seven-person board come up for election every year, with the top vote-getters taking the number of open seats.

The district had argued that updated U.S. Census projections showed the percentage of voting-aged African-Americans had topped 50 percent, meaning theoretically, candidates preferred by black voters could win. But the appeals court rejected the use of the estimated numbers, noting they are frequently proven wrong after the actual Census data are released.

Additionally, the court wrote, “minority voters do not lose VRA protection simply because they represent a bare majority within the district.” The Voting Rights Act, the opinion said, also considers “the history of discrimination and disenfranchisement in the district, and the way that those historical problems may still affect the district’s landscape.”

The appeals panel also rejected the district’s argument that three black school board members proved African-American voters could elect their preferred candidates.

“Simply put, proportionality alone does not indicate that a racial minority has achieved the ability to effectively participate in the political process,” the judges wrote.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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

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