ACLU Argues In Federal Court That South Carolina School Board Election Process Resulted In Racial Discrimination
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RICHMOND, VA – The American Civil Liberties Union will argue today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that a district court ruling that the method of electing members to a school board in Lexington County, South Carolina is discriminatory should be upheld. The lower court found that the county’s rules for school board elections dilute the voting strength of black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
“Every American citizen has the right to participate equally in the political process,” said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “Unfortunately, racially polarized voting is still a major problem in Lexington County and at-large elections can severely hinder effective minority participation. We hope the appeals court upholds the lower court ruling recognizing the continuing importance of the Voting Rights Act.”
School District Three of Lexington County in South Carolina has a significant minority population and, before 1994, three black individuals were elected to the board. That year, school board elections were changed from being held annually in February to being held every other year in November to coincide with the general election. As a result, voter turnout quadrupled causing the white majority to dilute the minority vote. After the change, black incumbents and black candidates ran for office in the at-large elections and, despite receiving strong support from black voters, were defeated. District elections, where voters choose candidates from their area, are recognized as a remedy for minority vote dilution.
The ACLU challenged the new elections process on behalf of a black voter in Lexington County in 2003. In the ensuing 2004 election, Cora Lester, a retired school librarian recruited by white board members to run in an effort to defeat the lawsuit, became the first black person elected to the school board under the challenged system.
In February 2009, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina issued its opinion invalidating the at-large system. It found that Lester’s election was a “special circumstance” because she was recruited to run in an effort to preserve the challenged system. The court also found that voting was racially polarized, that “there are lingering socio-economic effects of discrimination” in the county, and that black voters in the school district “have been denied equal opportunity to elect School Board members of their choice.” The court ordered new proposals to change the election method within 60 days.
The school district appealed the district court’s decision in June 2009.
Attorneys in the case are McDonald and Meredith Bell-Platts of the ACLU Voting Rights Project and cooperating attorney Herbert Buhl of Columbia, S.C.
The ACLU complaint and appellees brief can be found at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/minority/41059lgl20090929.html
More information about the ACLU Voting Rights Project can be found at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/index.html
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