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The Problem at the Center of Our Voting Rights Trial Goes Beyond NY

By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director & Simon McCormack Senior Writer, Communications

The recent trial in the NYCLU’s challenge to the East Ramapo, New York School Board has unearthed a voting rights scandal and an educational disaster with sordid details, including token candidates, witnesses lying to the court and defying court orders, and more. But you’d be mistaken to assume the drama unfolding 35 miles north of New York City is just a local curiosity.

The central voting scandal there has roots deep in our nation’s racist history of voter suppression, and its counterparts can be found elsewhere around the country, hiding in plain sight. 

Our case, which awaits a judge’s decision, challenges the East Ramapo School District’s deeply flawed election system. Under the system, all nine East Ramapo School Board members are elected on an at-large basis, rather than representing each community within the District. This allows the white majority in the District – which tends to vote as a political bloc for a slate of candidates and to favor private schools – to control every seat on the School Board, which controls the East Ramapo public schools.  

That means the public schools in East Ramapo – where almost all the students are Black and Latinx – have seen huge budget cuts and the diversion of millions of dollars to the nearly all-white private schools. 

Similar dynamics play out across the country and in other places in New York State, where the majority of school districts employ at-large systems. 

A Long History of Discrimination 

As is the case in East Ramapo, when an at-large voting system is combined with racially polarized voting patterns and segregated schools, this toxic combination often prevents voters of color from electing even a single candidate who represents their interests. 

At-large elections first took root during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century as a measure promoted by Anglo business elites to reduce the influence of immigrants and minorities.

In the years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed to protect historically disenfranchised Black people, jurisdictions that were prohibited from using voter suppression tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes began to adopt at-large city or county-wide representation schemes. These systems were put in place of ward systems that would have allowed voters in each section of a town or city to vote for candidates to represent their neighborhood.  

The motivation was clear: If counties were broken up into smaller districts, some would have enough Black voters to elect Black candidates.  But with “at-large” schemes, in the many white-majority counties throughout the former Confederacy only whites would be elected to county-wide office. White politicians could be counted on to represent the interests of whites, and ignore the interests of Black voters.  

Since Black people could still cast ballots, the states argued, they were not violating the Voting Rights Act. That changed with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1969 case, Allen v. State Board of Elections, in which the court ruled that these actions “nullify” the chance for Black voters “to elect the candidate of their choice just as would prohibiting some of them from voting.” 

The court made it clear voting schemes that “diluted” Black voters’ impact constituted discriminatory voting practices under the Voting Rights Act. 

Despite the court’s ruling, this sort of vote dilution continues in many parts of the country. It often takes a battle in the courts for things to change. 

A Fight in Ferguson 

In December, 2014, the ACLU sued the Ferguson-Florissant School District, arguing that the District’s at-large voting system violated the Voting Rights Act.   

The case came just four months after Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old Ferguson resident, was shot and killed by white Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. The killing and the subsequent decision not to charge Wilson sparked widespread protests that were met with a violent, paramilitary response from police. 

We need people on the Board with a vested interest in what is best for our public school children

While Brown’s killing thrust Ferguson into the national spotlight, the ACLU’s case made clear that systemic discrimination extended beyond the city’s police department.  

As the ACLU’s Julie Ebenstein explained, Ferguson “has a long and ugly history of racial discrimination.” Decades of housing discrimination has left the city highly segregated by race, and the Ferguson-Florissant School District was created in the 1970s specifically to avoid school integration.  

The District’s at-large voting, meanwhile, helped ensure that, as recently as 2014, in a school system where 80 percent of students are Black, there were no Black school Board members. By 2016, that number had barely ticked up to two out of seven members.  

The Board’s composition had concrete impacts on students. Members made no effort to reduce the racial achievement gap in the District and did nothing to address the disparities in school discipline. Black students were suspended and referred to the police more often than white students. And Black students were the only ones forced to endure the barbaric practice of corporal punishment – which continued until 2011. 

The Board Members meanwhile, blamed problems like the achievement gap on Black students’ family structures, repeating a racist trope about Black families.      

The case was brought by the ACLU on behalf of the Missouri NAACP and two of its members.  

“We’ve seen African-Americans excluded from making decisions that affect our children,” plaintiff Redditt Hudson said when the case was filed. “We need to be able to advocate for an education that will put our kids first and not political agendas.”  

Those comments echo what Eric Goodwin, one of the plaintiffs in our East Ramapo case said when we filed the case in 2017. Goodwin, whose son attends East Ramapo public schools, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the School Board.  

“We need people on the Board with a vested interest in what is best for our public school children,” Goodwin said. “That’s the only way that students like my son will be given the tools they need to succeed.” 

In the Ferguson case, the courts sided with the ACLU. In August 2016, a federal court held that the Ferguson-Florissant School District’s system for electing its School Board members violates the Voting Rights Act.  

In 2018, a federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling, and last year the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, leaving the lower court’s ruling in place. 

It’s About Accountability 

For David Tyson, changing the Richardson Independent School District in North Texas was about accountability to the voters. Tyson, who was the only Black man ever elected to the Board, sued the District to change its at-large system. The lawsuit was settled last year after the District agreed to a board structure with five single-member districts and two at-large representatives. 

“We don’t own these seats,” Tyson said after the settlement. “We’re elected by the voting population to sit in these seats.” 

In East Ramapo, the white community does effectively own the School Board. No candidate preferred by voters of color in the District had won a contested election for a decade before this lawsuit was brought. The candidates elected to the Board know that they can ignore the interests of people of color. 

Perhaps that’s why one former Board member once told a reporter he “worked for” the white community. 

Our lawsuit calls for the at-large system to be scrapped and replaced with a ward system with nine single-member districts. That way Board members will be held accountable to all the voters in the District. 

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