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Federal Judge Says Ferguson, Mo., District Elections Violate Voting Rights Act

This post has been updated.

A U.S. District judge ruled Monday that the system of electing school board members in the Ferguson-Florissant, Mo., school district deprives African-Americans of an "equal opportunity" to elect representatives of their choice to the school board and violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Judge Rodney W. Sippel also barred the Ferguson-Florissant School District and the St. Louis County Elections Commissioners—the defendants in the case—from holding school board elections until a new system addressing the "current inequities" is properly implemented.

Monday's ruling stemmed from a 2014 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Missouri chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three residents in the district.

The ACLU alleged in the lawsuit that the voting process in the Ferguson-Florissant district—which includes at-large school board seats, elections in off-year cycles, and staggered terms—reduces the opportunity for African-Americans to be elected to the school board and violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Section 2 of the law bars imposing practices or procedures that would affect one's right to vote based on race or color. But it does not require that discriminatory intent be proven to establish a violation. Instead, challengers can prove that the processes in place have the effect of diluting the vote of a particular group.  

Reactions to the Ruling

"We are encouraged that the court recognized the vote dilution in Ferguson-Florissant school district and how the ongoing effects of discrimination and socio-economic disparities can affect political participation and people's ability to take part in elections," said Julie Eberstein, the staff attorney at the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU who argued the case.

Cindy Ormsby, the attorney for the school district, said she was "shocked," "confused," and "disappointed" by both the outcome and the court's reasoning in reaching its conclusion.

The district "made a pretty strong case" in defense of the current at-large system, and it disagreed with the conclusion that the process violated the law, Ormsby said in an interview.

"The district continues to believe that the current at-large electoral system is best for African American representation," Ormsby said in a statement.  

"In fact, the court found that whites in the district are a plurality of the voting age population," the statement continued. "Therefore, the current makeup of the board, four whites and three African-Americans, would reflect a proportional representation.  African-Americans have won seats on the district's board in each election for the past three years. The board is united in the belief that this at-large system does not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act."

The Ferguson school district serves students from all or part of 11 municipalities in St. Louis County. About 77 percent of those students are black, while 15.6 are white.  The voting-age population of the municipalities that make up the district is 48 percent black (this can include mixed-race individuals) and 49 percent non-Hispanic, single-race white.

When the ACLU filed the lawsuit in 2014, there was one African-American on the seven-member school board. Since then two have been elected‑one in 2015 and another in 2016.

But David C. Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, testified at the trial that since 2004, white candidates had a 69.6 percent chance of gaining a seat on the school board, while the success rate for African-Americans was 10.5 percent.

From 2000 to 2015, no more than two African-Americans served on the board at the same time, Sippel wrote.

success rates for white and black candidates.JPG

The district asked the court to reopen the case in the spring after another African-American was elected to the board in April.  The current board is more representative of the district's population and proof that the process works, Ormsby said.

Eberstein said that while the ACLU was encouraged by the progress, the organization's issue was with the system.

"I think the important thing with this case, and with similar cases, is that this is an institutionalized or systemic issue that needs to be remedied," she said. "The board...a year and a half ago had one black member. Right now, it has three black members. ... That's encouraging, but the important thing here is that the structures of the election are fair, and we want to make sure that that's in place, not just something that appears to be a momentary solution."

Legacy of discrimination

In addition to applying a strict test—the Gingles' standards—to the case, Judge Sippel also considered the long history of discrimination and racial bias, including some that were state-sanctioned, in Missouri and St. Louis County. 

The current Ferguson-Florissant district, for example, was formed as a result of a 1975 desegregation order that led the then predominantly white Ferguson-Florissant and Berkeley school districts to incorporate neighboring Kinloch district, which was overwhelmingly black.

Sippel also cited housing inequity, socio-economic disparities between blacks and whites, and disparities between black and white children in the school district—in their participation in AP courses and enrichment programs, as well as disparities in suspension rates between African-Americans and white students. He also discussed a more contemporary issue that has been the center of deep conversation since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson in 2014: the African-American experience with law enforcement.

Among the things he considered were whether the district was responsive to the needs of African-Americans, whether African-American candidates had access to a slating process, and the voting procedures that were in place.

In depositions, some board members testified that they were "unaware of any particularized needs, and others testified that they were unaware of socio-economic disparities, racial profiling, historic discrimination, and the discipline gap," Sippel wrote.

And while black candidates had access to the slate, Sippel wrote that African-Americans were less likely to be endorsed by local heavyweights—the Ferguson-Florissant National Education Association, the teachers' union, and the North County Labor Club. Both organizations provide resources—including money, volunteers, and campaign literature‐to candidates they support. The organizations have endorsed 58 percent of white candidates since 2006 and 20 percent of African-American candidates in that period.

Voting for school board seats is also highly race-based, with black voters preferring black candidates and white voters preferring white candidates as their top choices.

Off-year elections were also doubly discriminatory to African-Americans, he wrote, because they tend to have low turnout, especially among African-Americans and disadvantaged groups, and they also increase the influence of well-organized interest groups. He ruled that at-large voting and off-cycle elections have a " disproportionately suppressive impact" on African-American voters in the Ferguson-Florissant school district.

Sippel wrote:

"The fact that the electoral process in FFSD Board elections is not equally open to African Americans is most apparent in the stark levels of racially polarized voting seen in Board elections and the failure of white voters to support candidates from the African American community, which has essentially blocked African American voters from exercising effective political power in the District. Against this backdrop of inequality, a number of other factors hinder African American electoral success, such as an absence of meaningful access to endorsements, and subtle racial campaign appeals. Importantly, each of these factors interact with the voting practices and procedures that are in place for school board elections in FFSD, including the at-large and off-cycle election features, as well as, to some extent, the staggered terms of Board members, to dilute the African American vote. Ultimately, the complex interaction between these processes and conditions has "cause[d] an inequality in the opportunities enjoyed by black and white voters to elect their preferred representatives."

Implications Beyond Ferguson?

The ACLU has several voting rights cases pending in municipalities across the country, including some with implications for school districts.  But Eberstein said that Monday's ruling applies only to the Ferguson-Florissant school district and its set of facts and local history.

Certainly, she said, the ruling can be cited and referenced in other cases.

Attorneys for the district, the ACLU, and the St. Louis County Elections Commissioners are expected to meet in court on Friday to start the process of hashing out possible remedies.

Eberstein said she hoped the solution would be in place before the next school board election, in April 2017.

Ormsby, who will attend Friday's status conference, said the district was keeping all options open. The school board, which will decide how the district responds, has not met since the ruling, though it was discussing scheduling a meeting.

Whatever proposals are discussed, and ultimately finally approved by the court, will apply only to the Ferguson-Florissant school district.

Image source:  Aug. 22, 2016 ruling in Missouri Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, et al, vs. Ferguson-Florissant School District, et al. 

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