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Ferguson School Board Elections Unfair to Black Candidates, Lawsuit Alleges

A federal lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that school board elections in Ferguson, Mo., use a system that keeps blacks "all but locked out of the political process."

The suit seeks to ban the Ferguson-Florissant school board's use of an at-large voting system. Courts have found that at-large systems can make it impossible for groups that are in the numerical minority to gain representation.

Despite a student population that's nearly 75 percent black, six of seven school board members in the district are white. There were no black members until earlier this year. The ACLU is filing the suit on behalf of the NAACP's Missouri chapter. The groups cite what they call a "long history of state-sanctioned disenfranchisement" of black voters.

"Under the current electoral system, they are systematically unable to elect candidates of their choice and are all but locked out of the political process," the lawsuit alleges. 

A spokeswoman for the Ferguson-Florissant district did not immediately respond to Education Week's request for comment on the lawsuit. The school district was created by a mid-1970s desegregation order intended to remedy the effects of discrimination against black students.

The ACLU's lawsuit claims that the district's at-large system violates the federal Voting Rights Act's ban on racial discrimination in voting. Under an at-large system, all candidates are elected by all the voters, rather than representing specific geographical areas. The plaintiffs want the system replaced with single-member districts.

The Voting Rights Act bans not just intentional racial discrimination in voting, but also actions that have the effect of discriminating.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the "ACLU and NAACP have filed similar lawsuits against school districts across the country, with much success. School boards in California, for instance, are now widely turning away from at-large elections in favor of sub-district contests." Education Week wrote about that shift in California last year.

 

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