Do Black Voters In Ferguson Have An Equal Voice In School Board Elections? This Judge Says No

A judge in Missouri has put a halt on elections for the Ferguson-Florrisant School Board on the basis that the election process unfairly discriminates against African-American voters.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel ruled that while he doesn’t believe the discrimination to be intentional, he did find a series of factors that have consistently contributed to Black voters not being able to fairly participate in the elections. “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,” Judge Rodney stated in a ruling released on Monday.

Additionally, Judge Rodney’s findings also included evidence that the current Ferguson-Florrisant School Board election practices are in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reports.

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As a result of the findings, the judge has suspended school board elections in the district until a new election system can be established and implemented. Several recommendations for improving the system are currently being discussed. Attorney Julie Ebenstein, who argued the case, suggested that having Black candidates run in specific geographic areas of the school district would be one way to increase the likelihood of Black voters being able to ensure better representation in the school board leadership. Although a status conference is scheduled to take place on Friday to being examining the Ferguson school district’s election system, School Board Association representative Brent Ghan noted that the system currently in use is one that has long been implemented statewide in Missouri. As a result, an overhaul of Missouri law as it relates to these school board election processes would be needed in order to affect change beyond just the Ferguson school district. 

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The area also has a history of questionable school board election processes. In 1988, Doris Graham became the first Black person elected to the school board; a victory she believes was only possible due to her decision to omit her photo from any campaign materials. “Nobody deliberately said we’re going to make it hard for Doris to win,” Graham said. “But the structure that’s in place makes it hard for a black person to win.”