New documents were filed Wednesday in a federal lawsuit aimed at making it easier for African-Americans to get elected in Ferguson, Missouri, after last year’s unrest brought attention to their severe under-representation in the city’s government.
Voting rights lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, representing a group of local black residents, urged a judge to rule in their favor in a Voting Rights Act challenge to the Ferguson-Florissant school district’s use of an at-large voting system. That system, they alleged in the original complaint filed in December, is helping to keep blacks “all but locked out of the political process.” […]
Although African-Americans make up 77% of students in the district, just one out of seven members of the school board were black when the case was filed last year. In April, one additional black member was elected. The plaintiffs’ filing shows that over the last decade or so, very few black candidates have managed to get elected to the board, though many have run.
The lawsuit claims that the under-representation of minorities is the result of the at-large system, in which all candidates are elected by all the voters, rather than representing specific geographical areas. Such systems can make it hard for minority voters to elect their preferred representatives, because although they might be a majority in one district, they’re outnumbered across the entire jurisdiction. As such, they’ve historically often been used to dilute minority voting power. Several recent cases have made clear that the practice continues today.
But in their own filing, lawyers for the school district note that African-Americans now make up a slight majority of the district’s voting-age population, meaning an at-large system should work in blacks’ favor, not against them.
The reason it doesn’t is that white turnout is consistently higher than black turnout for school board elections. But the plaintiffs say this, too, is a result of discriminatory election rules, like holding the elections in April with no other contests on the ballot—an arrangement that consistently leads to lower turnout among more marginalized voters. […]
Black students appear to be faring poorly under the current school board. Though they make up 77% of the district’s students, they were just 35% of those enrolled in the district’s Gifted and Talented program, according to Department of Education figures. Blacks made up nearly nine out of 10 non-disabled kids placed in in-school suspension. And of the 51 students who were subject to a school-related arrest in 2011, every one was black.