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Ferguson's school board election is unfair to black residents, judge rules

Nearly 80 percent of students in Ferguson's school district are black, but seven of the 10 current school board members are white.
Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP

A federal judge in Missouri has put school board elections in Ferguson and several neighboring communities on hold, saying the process has "essentially blocked African American voters from exercising effective political power."

The ruling by Judge Rodney W. Sippel came in response to a lawsuit against the Ferguson-Florissant School District (FFSD) filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three black plaintiffs and the Missouri chapter of the NAACP. The judge said systemic racial problems within the district violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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"The ongoing effects of racial discrimination that have long plagued the region, and the District in particular, have affected the ability of African Americans to participate equally in the political process," Sippel wrote in his decision.

Related: An ex-cop is suing over racial bias in voting in Ferguson schools

The FFSD encompasses 11 municipalities north of St. Louis, including Ferguson, where the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014 triggered a wave of protests that occasionally turned violent. Nearly 80 percent of students in the district are black, but seven of the 10 current school board members are white.

As noted by Sippel in his ruling, the imbalance is partly the result of the fact that, even though the district's voting-age population is split almost evenly along racial lines, fewer black people are registered to vote.

The current voting system was created in 1975 by a federal desegregation order, but the judge said it now dilutes the black vote by having residents cast their votes district-wide rather than locally. The judge also pointed out that many black voters in the district have been disenfranchised by laws that prevent convicted felons and people on parole from voting.

Another factor cited by Sippel was the state of home ownership in the district. Half of the area's black residents own their homes, compared to almost 83 percent of whites.

Related: A Ferguson City Councilman died — and the vote to replace him is split along racial lines

"Individuals who do not own their homes experience residential instability and move more frequently than homeowners," Sippel wrote, "which impacts the ability to efficiently and effectively register and vote."

Sippel barred the district from holding elections until they change the voting process — but he said he could not "make any findings now as to the proper remedy."

Earlier this year, following a civil rights investigation and lawsuit by the Department of Justice, Ferguson agreed to overhaul its police department and municipal court system.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen