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Ferguson’s School Board Elections Dilute the African-American Vote

Ferguson Protest
Ferguson Protest
Julie Ebenstein,
Senior Staff Attorney,
Voting Rights Project, ACLU
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December 13, 2017

The Ferguson-Florissant School District was born out of a 1975 federal desegregation order, intended to remedy effects of historical discrimination against African-American students.

Yet, as recently as 2014, the school board was all white, and its members had not had a racial make-up that reflects the district’s population in the 12 years prior. Slightly less than half of the voting-age residents of the district are African-American, as are roughly 80 percent of the students who attend the public schools. While some African-American candidates have been elected to the school board in the last few years, recent victories do not erase the district’s long history of racial exclusion and inequality.

The decades-long representational disparities stem from the at-large voting system used to elect school board members, which systematically disadvantages African-Americans from electing candidates of their choice by diluting the power of their vote. In 2014, the ACLU sued and, two years later, took the school district to court in a six-day trial, where a federal judge ultimately found that the at-large electoral system “essentially blocked African American voters from exercising effective political power in the District.” Judge Sippel then ordered the school district to change the electoral system to remedy the Voting Rights Act violation.

Instead, the school district appealed the court’s ruling. Now, we are back in court before the Eighth Circuit to ensure that the school district does not continue to use an electoral process that results in discrimination on the basis of race.

Here’s how the school district’s at-large voting system works: Each of the seven school board seats is elected by the entire district, otherwise known as an “at large” system. Voting in Ferguson is highly polarized along racial lines — African-American voters and white voters tend to prefer different candidates in each election. Because African-Americans comprise 48 percent of the voting age population in the district, it is difficult for them to elect a candidate of their choice in an at-large system, where the entire district weighs in for each seat.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits the application or imposition of any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” The VRA also prohibits vote dilution, which is the use of an electoral scheme — such as Ferguson-Florissant’s at-large method — that weakens the voting strength of minority voters and consequently denies those voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

This had led to years of underrepresentation for African-American residents of Ferguson in local government, and the consequences have been stark. The lower court found that “there is significant evidence that the African American community in FFSD has particularized needs concerning several issues, including unequal school resources and policies within FFSD, the disparate use of school discipline against African American schoolchildren, disparate educational opportunities for African American schoolchildren, and racial profiling by law enforcement.”

In Ferguson, the lower court made the right call to begin correcting historical wrongs. We are asking the Eighth Circuit to affirm that ruling, requiring the school district to change its ways and institute an electoral system that truly protects the power of every vote. Discrimination once entrenched remains in place until it is systematically uprooted.

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