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Lawsuit Claims Ferguson-Florissant School District Disenfranchises Black Voters

A new lawsuit alleges black voters and candidates are at a perpetual disadvantage in Ferguson's racially charged school board elections.

Posted on December 18, 2014, at 11:06 p.m. ET

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

A school bus full of children gesture and chant, "Hands up, don't shoot" in St. Louis metropolitan in August.

Black voters and candidates are discriminated against in the Ferguson-Florissant School District's elections, a new lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday by the ACLU, the Missouri NAACP, and several community members.

It describes an "at large" election system for the school board, meaning all voters living in the school district can vote for candidates, who in turn then represent everyone. The system contrasts to those in which a district is broken up into separate regions, which each elect their own representative.

The lawsuit argues that the at-large system puts black voters at a disadvantage and violates the Voting Rights Act.

"The current at-large scheme impermissibly denies African-American voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice," the plaintiffs contend in their lawsuit.

Other factors that allegedly put black voters at a disadvantage include the timing of elections, staggered terms for board members, and racially charged campaigns, the lawsuit claims.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs also describe a history of racial issues in the district, claiming that "what had been a racially integrated school district has now once again become segregated."

Ferguson Florissant School District / Via

The vast majority of the students in the Ferguson-Florissant district are black, but that diversity is not reflected on the school board.

Of the district's more than 12,000 students, 77.1% are black. But on the eight-member school board, seven are white and just one is black.

According to the lawsuit, 47.37% of those old enough to vote in the school district are black; 49.69% are white.

The lawsuit argues that the current demographics create a problem: "Voting in the elections of the Ferguson-Florissant School Board is racially polarized, as evidenced by the bloc voting patterns that have largely prevented African-American voters from electing their preferred candidates."

The lawsuit points out that black candidates have routinely lost in recent elections, and that the first black superintendent was dismissed earlier this year without an explanation. The overall result, according to the lawsuit, is that the school district is inattentive to the needs of black students.

"The totality of the circumstances demonstrates that African-American voters have less opportunity than other members of the electorate in the district to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice," the lawsuit contends.

The plaintiffs are asking the courts to put an end to the at-large voting system. Representatives for the Ferguson-Florissant School District could not immediately be reached Thursday evening.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

A school bus passes demonstrators protesting outside the police station on November 10 in Ferguson.

The lawsuit is one of many cases that challenge the status quo and that have come out of Ferguson since Michael Brown's death in August.

Taken together, the lawsuits illustrate how the Ferguson-based conflicts that began making headlines in August continue to play out in the courts.

On Thursday, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a lawsuit against 13 St. Louis-area cities over their use of traffic and court fees. Exorbitant traffic fines and fees have consistently been cited in the Ferguson as evidence of police profiling.

The lawsuit follows a handful of others that were filed earlier this month, also over court fines and fees.

Other lawsuits coming out of Ferguson deal with freedom of the press during demonstrations and the use of police tactics, among other things.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.