Ferguson voting rights lawsuit begins today

Two thirds of the people in Ferguson, Missouri are black, as are 77 percent of the students in the Ferguson-Florissant school district. However, when fifteen year-old Mike Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson, five of the seven members of the district’s school board, five of its six city council members and fifty of its fifty-three police officers are white. If this doesn’t strike you as a problem, well, you might just be a white voter in Ferguson.

As The Nation’s Ari Berman wrote earlier today, there are a number of reasons why Ferguson’s political bodies don’t come close to reflecting the racial makeup of its city — from a historic discrimination to poverty to low voter turnout — but the city’s institutions themselves certainly don’t seem to help:

Protestors in Ferguson, via Creative Commons

Protestors in Ferguson, via Creative Commons

The school board elects candidates on a district-wide basis, rather than from specific district—known as “at-large elections”—and because the district’s voting age population is 50 percent white and 47 black, with whites usually refusing to vote for a black candidate, the white majority is virtually assured of determining the winner.

In other words, rather than breaking the school district up into nine geographically contiguous segments, with each segment selecting one representative, the entire district selects nine representatives who each represent the entire geographic area. Under this arrangement, it’s possible for 50%+1 of the voters to secure 100% of the representation, should they all vote as a consistent bloc. The composition of Ferguson’s school board relative to the city’s demographic makeup suggests that something very close to that hypothetical is taking place.

That’s why at-large districts are going on trial in federal district court today, as the ACLU and Missouri NAACP challenged the city’s school board electoral process under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that, “Under the current electoral system, [African-Americans] are systematically unable to elect candidates of their choice and are all but locked out of the political process,” noting that between 2011 and 2015 white school board candidates were four times as likely to win as black candidates. Again, this is despite the fact that the school board is charged with making decisions for a predominantly non-white student body.

If the lawsuit is successful, it could lead to challenges of at-large elections in districts around the country.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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