A federal judge has barred the Ferguson-Florissant School District from conducting school board elections, ruling that the current political process is stacked against African-American voters.
U.S. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel said that while he does not see evidence of intentional discrimination, there is a more subtle “complex interaction” of political processes that deter black voters from electing the candidates of their choice.
“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 judge concluded in a 119-page ruling issued Monday.
The Ferguson-Florissant district serves about 11,200 students in parts of 11 municipalities. About 80 percent of those students are black, and 12 percent are white. District residents are nearly evenly split between black and white.
The ruling states that the election system is in violation of 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 ruling calls for a status conference on Friday to discuss a “remedies briefing schedule” to further address the matter. The court’s decision applies only to the Ferguson-Florissant district.
Julie Ebenstein, the ACLU attorney who argued the case, said one possible remedy would be to do away with or curtail the use of at-large elections, in which candidates for school board must win the support of voters across the entire school system. Such a system may be stacked against blacks.
Imagine, she said, a district with 10 open school board seats. If 70 percent of voters are white and 30 percent are black, and people vote along racial lines, it’s possible that nearly all the seats on the board could be filled by white candidates.
Ebenstein said a possible approach may be to also have candidates run in specific geographic areas of the school district. That way, she said, black candidates might be more likely to prevail in areas with a higher concentration of black voters.
All other school districts in the state, except Kansas City, have at-large school board elections, said Missouri School Boards Association spokesman Brent Ghan.
While the ruling could lead to other voting methods in Ferguson-Florissant, Missouri law would have to change in order to alter how other school districts vote.
Ghan said at-large voting is typically the “preferable system” because it “works well in most of the state to ensure district-wide representation.”
Cindy Ormsby, the lawyer for the Ferguson-Florissant School District, agreed an at-large voting system “works best for African-American representation.”
She said Monday the district continues to believe the system does not violate the federal Voting Rights Act. She points to the fact that three of the current seven board members are African-American and that black candidates have won seats in each of the past three years.
However, looking at the race of the board members to determine whether there’s a problem is too simplistic, said ACLU Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert.
“This (case) is really just about the right to elect the candidates of your choice,” he said.
In much of the decision, the judge wades through competing expert testimony on voting patterns in the Ferguson-Florissant district.
In doing so, the judge seeks to determine whether legal standards have been satisfied to demonstrate a violation of voting rights. Those standards are spelled out in the 1986 federal case of Thornberg v. Gingles.
Among those tests is whether voting across the school system has been racially polarized.
More to the point, the judge asks — as prescribed in the Gingles case — whether candidates favored by blacks have been historically less likely to prevail than those favored by whites.
Looking at a decade of election returns, the judge found that to be the case.
Over that period, the most-favored candidates among blacks won three of seven times, compared to seven out of seven victories for the candidate most favored by whites.
In court, the school district focused on the most recent success of black candidates.
Among them is Donna Thurman, who was elected to the board in 2014. The election followed the controversial ouster of Superintendent Art McCoy, who is black and popular among African-Americans.
A year later — following the racial turmoil that accompanied the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer — voters elected Courtney Graves, who is also African-American.
But the judge ruled that the successes of black candidates in both those elections were due to “special circumstances” and are not representative of typical election years.
The case was argued in January. In April, Constance “Connie” Harge, who is black, was elected, securing the most votes of any candidate.
The judge said he considered the most recent election in his ruling, though he did not have the benefit of expert testimony on its significance.
An unequal voice
In 1988, Doris Graham became the first African-American woman to be elected to the board, and she did it without putting her photo on campaign fliers. Years later, she heard some voters in the district say that they had voted for her thinking she was Delores Graham, a well-known principal who was white.
“Nobody deliberately said we’re going to make it hard for Doris to win,” Doris Graham said. “But the structure that’s in place makes it hard for a black person to win.”
The at-large structure tilts in favor of white candidates with strong civic or business ties in Ferguson, she said.
“They have always felt they are the better to lead the district. They don’t reach out for a black candidate like myself.”
Graham lost her bid for re-election in 2011.
Ormsby, the lawyer for Ferguson-Florissant, said the district is reviewing its options, including an appeal of the court’s decision.
ACLU’s Rothert said he believes the Ferguson-Florissant case highlights state voting methods, including at-large and alternative voting systems, that can cause African-American voters to have an unequal voice.
“The Legislature might want to look at if it’s wise to keep mechanisms in place that tend to dilute the votes of African-Americans,” he said.
Elisa Crouch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.