District’s At-Large School Board Elections Violate Voting Rights Act, Court Rules

Mark Walsh:

A federal appeals court has ruled that the at-large voting system for the school board covering Ferguson, Mo., where the police shooting of an African-American man sparked weeks of racial unrest in 2014, violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The seven-member board of the Ferguson-Florissant school district, which serves all or part of 11 municipalities in suburban St. Louis, is elected at large. The district’s student population of 11,200 students is about 80 percent black and 20 percent white.

The school board was all white until 2014, the same year that Michael Brown was shot and killed in an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson, sparking widespread street protests that focused on police and city policies. (A state grand jury declined to indict the officer who shot Brown and the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the officer had acted in self-defense.)

Education Week’s Denisa R. Superville visited Ferguson one year after the Brown incident and last year examined efforts to bring greater racial diversity to school boards.

There was one African-American member of the Ferguson-Florissant board in 2014 before the state chapter of the NAACP, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the district alleging that black voters’ votes were being diluted by the at-large voting system in violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. There are now three black members on the board.

Madison features at large seats (not the case years ago). Changing this would be very useful for competitive and less costly elections.