Ferguson School District Violated Voting Rights Act, Judge Rules

He concluded the district "deprives African American voters of an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice."

ST. LOUIS ― A federal judge on Monday ruled that the Ferguson-Florissant School District violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by setting up an electoral system that limited the voting power of the African-American community.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel concluded that the school district “deprives African American voters of an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice in violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”

“The ongoing effects of racial discrimination that have long plagued the region, and the District in particular, have affected the ability of African Americans to participate equally in the political process,” Sippel wrote.

Racial tensions in the area came to a head in 2014 after black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson. The situation brought protesters into the streets and sparked deeper scrutiny of government systems in Ferguson and the rest of St. Louis County.

Sippel didn’t say how the district should remedy the system it has in place. In the interim, the judge forbade the district from conducting elections for the school board “until a new system may be properly implemented.”

Cindy Ormsby, a lawyer for the school district, said in an email that the district cannot change the electoral system voluntarily because the elections are held “in a manner that is required by Missouri law.” The district is considering an appeal of the judge’s decision, she said.

She noted that FFSD is “very disappointed” with the court’s ruling.

“The District continues to believe that the current at-large electoral system is best for African American representation... African-Americans have won seats on the District’s Board in each election for the past three years,” Ormsby wrote. “The Board is united in the belief that this at-large system does not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”

“The court agreed that the current at-large system dilutes African-Americans’ voting power and undermines their voice in the political process.”

- Julie Ebenstein, of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri in December 2014, was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a number of black voters and the Missouri chapter of the NAACP. The plaintiffs alleged that the way the Ferguson-Florissant School District set up elections for its board members meshed “with historical and socioeconomic conditions” to keep minority voters from choosing representatives of their choice.

“The court agreed that the current at-large system dilutes African-Americans’ voting power and undermines their voice in the political process,” Julie Ebenstein, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “This ruling recognizes that voting in Ferguson-Florissant usually results in the election of candidates preferred by white voters only, and helps push back against decades of systemic racism.”

The Ferguson-Florissant School District was founded in 1975 under a federal order to desegregate African-American students ― by adjoining primarily white districts with those where the student population was primarily black. The district covers more than 10 municipalities and serves more than 13,000 students. According to the 2011 U.S. Department of Education survey, 77 percent of the students are African-American and just 15 percent are white.

During the six-day trial in January, Jonathan Rodden, a political science professor at Stanford University who has studied demographics in the area, gave testimony that the FFSD “is in the midst of an ongoing racial transition marked by white flight to the outer suburbs.“ The district has lost more than half of its white population since 2000, according to Rodden’s testimony.

Sippel based his findings in the exhaustive 119-page opinion on extensive expert testimony, statistics and historical data that he used to determine, based on “a practical evaluation of the past and present reality, whether the political process is equally open to minority voters.” He concluded that black voters were nowhere near as successful as white voters in electing candidates of their preference to the Ferguson-Florissant School Board.

“During the six contested elections from 2011 to 2016, fifteen African American candidates ran for Board seats,” Sippel wrote. “African American candidates were successful in obtaining three out of those fifteen seats (20% success). During the six contested elections from 2011 to 2016, eighteen white candidates ran for Board seats. White candidates were successful in obtaining eleven out of those sixteen seats (68.7% success).”

The St. Louis County Board of Elections’ only concern with the ruling is the logistics of it, such as whether new subdistricts will be drawn, Director of Elections Eric Fey told HuffPost.

Read the judge’s ruling:

This post has been updated with comments from the St. Louis County Board of Elections and from a lawyer for the school district. Cristian Farias contributed reporting from New York.

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