Monday, January 11, 2021

East Ramapo's at-large school district voting process is struck down under the Voting Rights Act

The Court of Appeals has upheld a trial court ruling that said the at-large voting process in the East Ramapo Central School District dilutes the votes of the minority community in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The Second Circuit holds that plaintiffs in these cases are not required to prove intentional racial discrimination to prove a vote-dilution claim. 

The case is Clerveaux v. East Ramapo Central School District, issued on January 6. At-large voting means the entire community selected the school board, unlike voting mechanisms where people in each voting district select their own representatives. East Ramapo is unique in that it has about 8,800 public school students and nearly 30,000 private school students, mostly going to white Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish private schools. Ninety-two percent of the students in the public schools are black or Latino, and 98 percent of the private school students are white. The problem with East Ramapo's voting system was that influential members of the white private school community chose the candidates for the school board elections, and their candidates usually win election. Candidates were chosen based on who the slating team knew personally. The elected school board seems to favor the private schools over the public schools, based on statistics relating to budget cuts and other acts of favoritism. 

After the district court, following a lengthy bench trial, ruled against the district, the defendants appealed to the Second Circuit, which affirms. The Supreme Court has devised a complicated framework for analyzing these cases, found in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986). Here is what the Second Circuit (Pooler, Hall and Chin) did:

1. Evidence of racial animus is not necessary to prove a violation of the Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. While the absence of racial animus is a factor to be considered under the "totality of the circumstances" of the case, it is not dispositive. It does not appear that Congress required proof of intentional discrimination when it amended the Act in 1982. 

2. One relevant factor guiding these cases is whether the minority community votes as a cohesive unit such that the whites could vote as a block to defeat minority-preferred candidates. Plaintiffs were able to prove that through expert testimony. Another factor is whether the elections in the community are racially-polarized; plaintiff proved that, the Court of Appeals says, rejecting the district's claim that the elections are driven by policy disagreements (like lower taxes), not race. The record shows a "near-perfect correlation between race and school type," and "the circumstances indicate that schooltype [private vs. public] is a proxy for race" and "policies favorable tot the private-school community come at the cost of the public-school community." There is little evidence that candidates campaign on the basis of specific policies and many candidates are not chosen by the slating committee based on their policy positions. It is also difficult for minority candidates to be slated by the committee. And the elected school board members are largely unresponsive to public school concerns (which impact its mostly minority student body).

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