Residents cast their votes at a polling place on Nov. 4, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

Lawsuit claims racial discrimination in Ferguson voting

Updated

School board elections in Ferguson, Missouri use a racially discriminatory system that is helping to keep blacks “all but locked out of the political process,” a new federal lawsuit alleges.

The suit, filed Thursday morning by the American Civil Liberties Union in a federal district court in St. Louis, is the first effort to use the legal system to change the area’s political balance of power since unrest over the death of Michael Brown last summer focused attention on local blacks’ severe under-representation in government.

RELATED: Ferguson’s lack of diversity goes way beyond its cops

It takes aim at the Ferguson-Florissant school board’s use of an at-large voting system. Courts have found that at-large systems can make it impossible for groups that are in the numerical minority to gain representation.

“Today, African Americans constitute a minority of the voting age population of the District,” the lawsuit alleges. “Under the current electoral system, they are systematically unable to elect candidates of their choice and are all but locked out of the political process.” 

The glaring absence of minorities in Ferguson’s city government, and on its police force, has become well-known since Brown’s death in August, and the angry protests it sparked put a spotlight on this St. Louis suburb of 21,000. Though blacks make up two thirds of the city’s population, six out of seven of the city council members, and the mayor and city manager, are white.

But the problem is just as acute on the local school board, where six of seven members are also white, despite a student population that’s 73% black. Until earlier this year, there were no black members.

“The Ferguson-Florissant School District is reviewing the lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). We hope to issue a statement in the near future,” spokeswoman Jana Shortt told msnbc in a statement.

The ACLU’s lawsuit claims that the district’s at-large system violates the Voting Rights Act’s (VRA) ban on racial discrimination in voting. Under an at-large system, all candidates are elected by all the voters, rather than representing specific geographical areas. The plaintiffs want the system replaced with single-member districts.

The current system dilutes “the voting power of the African-American community and severely undermines their voice in the political process,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Dividing voters into districts tends to make it easier for minority candidates to get elected, experts say, because their supporters will likely make up a majority within one or more individual district, even if they’re outnumbered across the entire jurisdiction. Under an at-large system, minority groups risk being left without anyone in power looking out for their interests.

“I was really surprised to find that this particular electoral seating was based on at-large votes,” said Rev. T. Willis Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board this year and is one of the plaintiffs in the case. Under the system, Johnson said, “you may or not have any representation for your zone or cluster of schools.”

In August, a federal court found that the at-large voting system used by Yakima, Washington violates the Voting Rights Act by making it all but impossible for Hispanics, who make up around a third of the city’s population, to elect their chosen representatives to the city council. That lawsuit, too, was brought by the ACLU. Fayette County, Georgia’s at-large system also was struck down by a federal court under the VRA earlier this year, leading to the election of the first black woman to the county commission. Civil rights groups last month sued the city of Pasadena, Texas, after it moved to an at-large system.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act bars not just intentional racial discrimination in voting, but also actions that have the effect of discriminating. Courts have generally required that plaintiffs show, at the least, that the action hurt minorities because it exacerbated an existing history of discrimination.

RELATED: Race in 2014: Where do we go from here?

That history of discrimination is present in this case, the lawsuit alleges. The school district was created by a 1975 desegregation order intended to remedy the effects of discrimination against African-American students.

“The Ferguson-Florissant School District serves an area whose history is fraught with discrimination against African-American citizens,” the lawsuit says. “The borders of the municipalities were initially drawn along racial lines, established to avoid increasing African American voting strength, and kept in force by racial housing covenants.”

There’s plenty of evidence that Ferguson’s school system isn’t working for black students. 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 the most recent Department of Education figures. But they made up 88% of nondisabled kids placed in in-school suspension. And all 51 students who were subject to a school-related arrest in 2011 were black.

The school board has been the subject of racially charged rancor lately. Earlier this year, Art McCoy, the district’s first black superintendent, stepped down after having been suspended by the board, which cited “differences of philosophy and focus.”

The treatment of McCoy angered many in the black community, and prompted a slate of three black candidates, including Johnson, to run against whites—two of whom were incumbents—for seats on the board. After what appears to have been deeply racially polarized voting, one of the black candidates was elected, while two were defeated.

RELATED: What will come from Ferguson?

Brown’s death sparked a well-publicized effort to mobilize the African-American community in Ferguson and the St. Louis area, amid concern over low black turnout rates for local elections. It seemed to be producing strong results when the St. Louis County Board of Elections announced in October that 3,287 new voters had registered in Ferguson since the shooting. But that turned out to be an error. The real number was just 128.

The ACLU is bringing the suit on behalf of the NAACP’s Missouri chapter. The groups cite what they call a “long history of state-sanctioned disenfranchisement of African-American voters.

ACLU, Ferguson, Michael Brown, Missouri and Voting Rights Act

Lawsuit claims racial discrimination in Ferguson voting

Updated