U.S. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel said in a decision that even while he does not see any evidence of deliberate racial discrimination in the Ferguson-Florrisant School District, he has moved to bar the district from holding school board elections. Having ruled that at-large elections in the current political process is to the detriment of black voters, he said that there is a “complex interaction” of political processes that deter black voters from electing the candidates of their choosing.
“Rather, it is my finding that the cumulative effects of historical discrimination, current political practices, and the socioeconomic conditions present in the District impact the ability of African-Americans in (the school system) to participate equally in Board elections,” the Sippel concluded. He was appointed to the bench during the Bill Clinton administration. The court’s decision
applies only to the Ferguson-Florissant district.
ACLU attorney Julie Ebenstein, who argued for the plaintiffs – who included the NAACP
– advocates eliminating or curtailing at-large elections. In such elections, candidates for the school board must seek support on the part of voters across the district regardless of geographic location or racial designation. She believes this is why the elections are slanted against black voters.
In her argument, Ebenstein asked the court to imagine a district fielding ten open school board seats. If 30% of the voters are black and 70 % are white, and voters cast ballots along racial lines, it is still possible for nearly all of the seats to be filled by whites. By having candidates run for specific geographic areas, black candidates would prevail in areas of high numbers of black voters.
The Ferguson-Florissant district is home to approximately 11,200 students and covers portions of 11 distinct municipalities. Approximately 80% of those students are black, while 12% are white. Overall, residents of the district are nearly split evenly between blacks and whites. Currently, three out of the seven school district council members are black. Low turnout among black voters in Ferguson, which was only 12 percent in the 2013 municipal election, has been attributed, among other factors, to the fact that blacks are more likely to rent their homes and to be transient in Ferguson home owners who are more likely to vote.
The district happens to encompass the town of Ferguson, which has been torn apart by riots and disturbances that reached their peak after the 2014 death of a local black man, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white police officer. Civil rights advocates, leftists, and race activists condemned the shooting death and claimed it was evidence of trigger-happy police who are wont to kill unarmed blacks. After an extensive investigation by the Department of Justice, the shooting was judged to be rightful. Even so, there were riots, burning, and arrests in the wake of the shooting. Out of that incident was born the BlackLivesMatter movement.
The 119-page memo asserts that the election system in the Ferguson-Florissant School District violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. “As a result, the Court enjoins Defendants from conducting any elections for the District’s Board until a new system may be properly implemented,” the judge ruled. The memo called for a conference on August 26 to address the concerns.
The judge wrote in his conclusion:
“Intentional discrimination is not an element of a § 2 violation. See Gingles, 478 U.S. at 35-37. Plaintiffs have never alleged that Defendants intentionally discriminate against African Americans, and I do not make any findings that Defendants engaged in intentional discrimination. Rather, it is my finding that the cumulative effects of historical discrimination, current political practices, and the socioeconomic conditions present in the District impact the ability of African Americans in FFSD to participate equally in Board elections.”
At-large balloting has is origins in Article One of the US Constitution, which provides for direct election of members of the House of Representatives. A congressional act passed in 1967, 2 U.S.C. § 2c, says the Representatives must be elected from geographical districts and that these must be single-member districts, except when the state has a single representative, in which case one at-large representative is elected from the entire state. This is the case with North Dakota, for example, as it has been for other states in the past such as Arizona. A study about the election of Representatives that is published at the FairVote
website indicates that, despite some problems, there are considerable benefits to an at-large voting system:
"There are two benefits that may come from this system though. First and most significant is that at-large elections avert the need to create districts, majority-minority or otherwise, and are therefore much more efficient for state legislatures. Politicians are not permitted to choose the voters, and the evils of gerrymandering are conveniently avoided. Second is that candidates elected at-large tend to more represent the interests of the whole state rather than the narrow, parochial interests to which district Representatives are perceived as being more susceptible. Related to this argument is that voters in at-large elections are not limited to the choice of only one candidate, but instead can have an impact on all of the Congressmen elected from their home state."
According to the Missouri School Boards Association, like the Ferguson-Florrisant district, all other Missouri school districts (except Kansas City) have at-large school board elections. To allow for the change demanded by Ebenstein, Missouri law would have to change how all the school districts cast their school board election ballots. A spokesman for the school boards association contends that at-large balloting is preferable because works well in most of Missouri to ensure district-wide representation.
Representing the Ferguson-Florissant School District, Attorney Cindy Ormsby believes that the at-large system “works best for African-American representation.” She contends that the system does not violate federal law and pointed out that three of the seven board members now serving are black, and that black candidates have won seats in each of the past three years.
ACLU Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert says this is too simplistic. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “This (case) is really just about the right to elect the candidates of your choice,” he said.
The court will seek to test whether voting has been polarized along racial lines, and whether candidates favored by black voters are less likely to prevail than those favored by whites. In weighing his decision, the judge referred to Thornburg v. Gingles of 1986. In that Supreme Court case, the court unanimously found that the “legacy of official discrimination ... acted in concert with the multimember districting scheme to impair the ability of ... cohesive groups of black voters to participate equally in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice."
After reviewing ten years of election returns, Judge Sippel found that the deck has been stacked against black voters. The judge determined that over the last 10 years, candidates favored by blacks won three of seven times. Among candidates favored by whites, they won seven out of seven times.
The Ferguson-Florissant District argued that recent electoral victories by black candidates is proof that there is no such slant against blacks. Among them is Donna Paulette-Thurman, a black woman who was elected to the board in 2014. Her election came after the hotly debated ouster of school Superintendent Art McCoy: a black politician who remains popular among black voters. The current superintendent is also black.
In 2015, after the turmoil following the shooting death of Michael Brown, voters elected Courtney Graves, who is black too. Despite these elections, the judge ruled that these successes for black candidates were merely due to “special circumstances” and are not representative of typical election years. In April of this year, Connie Harge was elected, having gotten the most votes of any candidate. Harge is black. But even considering Harge’s victory, the judge believed he needed expert testimony to explain its significance.
One of the black politicians who argues against the at-large electoral system is Doris Graham, who became in 1988 the first black woman elected to the school board. She did not place her photo on her campaign literature, and she later heard that voters had cast their ballot for her in the mistaken belief that she was Delores Graham: a white woman. She said that the current system makes it hard for black people to win. Whites with civic and business relationships are favored she said. She lost her re-election bid in 2011.
The school district is reviewing its options, including an appeal of the court’s decision.
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