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Ferguson voting rights lawsuit heads to trial

ACLU, NAACP say elections for Ferguson school board violate Voting Rights Act, block African-American representation

A year and a half after a white police officer shot black teenager Michael Brown and left his body in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, the city continues to grapple with longstanding racial inequities.

Since Brown’s death, community members have pushed for police reform and evened out the racial composition of the heretofore predominantly white Ferguson city council. Now three Ferguson residents are trying, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP, to change a voting system that they say keeps African-Americans from having a voice on the local school board.

Community members Redditt Hudson, F. Willis Johnson, and Doris Bailey are suing the Ferguson-Florissant School District and the St. Louis County Board of Elections in federal court over allegations that the district’s system for electing school board members violates the Voting Rights Act. The Missouri NAACP is also a plaintiff in the case, which goes to trial Monday.

The plaintiffs’ complaint, filed in December 2014 by the ACLU, charges that African-American voters “are denied the ability to elect candidates of their choice by the existing at-large voting system.” Under an at-large system, school board members are elected by the entire district, rather than by particular neighborhoods or regions. The plaintiffs argue this has the effect of diluting voter power in predominantly black neighborhoods that would otherwise be able to elect black representatives.

“Despite the fact that African-Americans are almost half of the School District’s population and are a substantial majority of its students, there has never been adequate representation of African-Americans on the Board,” the plaintiffs say in the complaint. As of December 2014, when the complaint was filed, the complaint notes that the board had only one African-American member.

In response to the lawsuit, the school district said, in a statement provided by one of its attorneys, that because the black population of the region is growing, the existing at-large voting system “facilitates the expansion of African-American representation.”

“This method of holding elections does not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” the district said. “On the contrary, we will show that the Ferguson-Florissant School District has a long history of African-American representation under the existing rules."

More than 75 percent of the district’s students are black, although voting-age white residents still outnumber voting-age black residents, according to the 2010 Census.

This early in litigation, it would be premature for the plaintiffs to offer a specific proposal for changing the current system, said ACLU attorney Julie Ebenstein, who is working on the case. But as part of their efforts to demonstrate that the current at-large system is unfair, the plaintiffs have modeled two regional voting systems, each of which would have seven districts corresponding to the seven seats on the school board.

Four of those seven voting districts would be majority African-American, Ebenstein said.

“These are not proposed remedies,” she said. “These are just illustrations that a better system is possible.”

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