On the heels of last week’s historic municipal elections in Ferguson, Missouri, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), which is a completely separate organization from the NAACP, has sent letters to four of Ferguson’s neighboring cities—Florissant, Hazelwood, University City, and St. Ann—highlighting the ways in which their city councils’ voting districts are likely threatening African-American voters’ equal access to the political process.
Written on behalf of the Missouri NAACP, the Mound City Bar Association, the Black Leadership Roundtable, and Clergy United, LDF’s letters draw attention to these cities’ use of electoral systems that have the potential to both deny African-American voters the ability to elect candidates of their choice and preclude African Americans’ fair representation on city councils. Although African Americans constitute approximately a quarter of the voting age population in three of these cities, no African American has ever served on the city councils of Florissant, Hazelwood, or St. Ann. In University City, although voters of color makeup half the population, only two of the six members of the city council are African-American. LDF’s analysis suggests that the lack of African-American representation in Florissant and Hazelwood are in part the product of these cities’ potentially improper reliance on voting districts with unequal populations. Under this structure, the residents of the predominantly white voting districts appear to have more voting power and representation than the residents of the majority African-American voting districts in violation of the Equal Protection Clause’s “one person, one vote” principle. In University City and St. Ann, LDF believes that the use of districts that elect two-candidates per district, rather than one, is preventing the creation of additional majority-minority districts in which African Americans would have an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.
LDF’s letters explain that, because these voting structures may violate the federal Constitution and Voting Rights Act, city leaders must study and take immediate corrective measures to resolve these issues in order to avoid potentially costly and lengthy litigation.
“The events in Ferguson exposed entrenched and discriminatory structural flaws that threaten democracy across St. Louis County,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director Counsel of LDF. “City leaders should acknowledge and embrace this opportunity to ensure that the members of St. Louis County’s African American community have a voice on their city councils. Change must come not only to Ferguson, but to these surrounding cities as well.”
Given the problematic voting systems used in each of these cities, it is unlikely that the African-American community has had a meaningfully voice in the decisions regarding municipal policing policies, the municipal court systems, and related hiring decisions. Thus, LDF’s letters note that Florissant, Hazelwood, University City and St. Ann are plagued by many of the same problems that led to the mass public protests in Ferguson (and across the nation). Indeed, a Missouri Attorney General report notes that in all four cities, African-American motorists are much more likely to be stopped and arrested by the police than white motorists. As in Ferguson, these stops generate municipal court fines and fees that undergird the city budgets. In St. Ann, close to 40% of its 2013 revenue came from fines and fees disproportionately paid by African Americans. Although African Americans constitute about a quarter of the populations of Florissant, Hazelwood, and St. Ann, fewer than 10% of police officers in those cities are African-American. In fact, some city leaders in Florissant, Hazelwood, and St. Ann were named in the U.S. Department of Justice report that found that Ferguson city officials had engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional practices. For example, the municipal court Judge in Ferguson simultaneously served as the city prosecutor in Florissant from 2002 until his resignation in March. Similarly, the Ferguson city prosecutor in Ferguson continues to serve as the prosecutor in Hazelwood.
“Every voter has a right to equal representation,” said Deuel Ross, Fried Frank Fellow at LDF. “Florissant, Hazelwood, University City, and St. Ann should learn from Ferguson’s experience and take proactive steps to end those practices that are prone to locking African Americans out of city government. LDF hopes to work cooperatively with all city leaders to address these concerns.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is not a part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) although LDF was founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. Since 1957, LDF has been a completely separate organization.