For Immediate Release
ACLU Argues in Federal Court That South Carolina School Board Election Process Resulted in Racial Discrimination
RICHMOND, Va. - The
American Civil Liberties Union will argue today in the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that a district court ruling that the
method of electing members to a school board in Lexington County, South
Carolina is discriminatory should be upheld. The lower court found that
the county's rules for school board elections dilute the voting
strength of black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
"Every American citizen has the
right to participate equally in the political process," said Laughlin
McDonald, Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "Unfortunately,
racially polarized voting is still a major problem in Lexington County
and at-large elections can severely hinder effective minority
participation. We hope the appeals court upholds the lower court ruling
recognizing the continuing importance of the Voting Rights Act."
School District Three of Lexington
County in South Carolina has a significant minority population and,
before 1994, three black individuals were elected to the board. That
year, school board elections were changed from being held annually in
February to being held every other year in November to coincide with
the general election. As a result, voter turnout quadrupled causing the
white majority to dilute the minority vote. After the change, black
incumbents and black candidates ran for office in the at-large
elections and, despite receiving strong support from black voters, were
defeated. District elections, where voters choose candidates from their
area, are recognized as a remedy for minority vote dilution.
The ACLU challenged the new
elections process on behalf of a black voter in Lexington County in
2003. In the ensuing 2004 election, Cora Lester, a retired school
librarian recruited by white board members to run in an effort to
defeat the lawsuit, became the first black person elected to the school
board under the challenged system.
In February 2009, the U.S. District
Court for the District of South Carolina issued its opinion
invalidating the at-large system. It found that Lester's election was a
"special circumstance" because she was recruited to run in an effort to
preserve the challenged system. The court also found that voting was
racially polarized, that "there are lingering socio-economic effects of
discrimination" in the county, and that black voters in the school
district "have been denied equal opportunity to elect School Board
members of their choice." The court ordered new proposals to change the
election method within 60 days.
The school district appealed the district court's decision in June 2009.
Attorneys in the case are McDonald
and Meredith Bell-Platts of the ACLU Voting Rights Project and
cooperating attorney Herbert Buhl of Columbia, S.C.
The ACLU complaint and appellees brief can be found at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/
More information about the ACLU Voting Rights Project can be found at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.