Voting Rights Act Cases and School Boards

By Mark Walsh — March 13, 2009 2 min read
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The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 affects school districts at their political foundation--the election of school board members.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision this week could make it slightly harder for minority candidates to win election to school boards. Meanwhile, a separate case the justices are taking up this term could have a bit of impact on school districts that face special “preclearance” requirements under the voting-rights law.

In a case decided on Monday, the justices ruled that law can only be used to help minorities elect their preferred candidates when the minority group members make up at least 50 percent of an electoral district.

The decision in Bartlett v. Strickland (Case No. 07-689) involved a state legislative district in North Carolina, but it also applies to single-member electoral districts in elections for school boards. Barred by the 5-4 ruling are so-called crossover districts, in which lines are drawn so that a large minority of black or Hispanic voters are expected to get help from crossover white voters to elect a minority candidate.

Writing for a plurality of the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that among the other concerns about whether the Voting Rights Act required such districts, “crossover-district claims would require courts to make predictive political judgments not only about familiar, two-party contests in large districts but also about regional and local jurisdictions that often feature more than two parties or candidates.”

Thus, “courts would face the difficult task of discerning crossover patterns in nonpartisan contests for a city commission, a school board, or a local water authority,” Justice Kennedy added. “The political data necessary to make such determinations are nonexistent for elections in most of those jurisdictions.”

Writing for the dissenters, Justice David H. Souter said the result of the decision would be to force states and other jurisdictions to pack minority voters into such “majority-minority” districts and thus cut down on the total number of electoral districts from which minorities could--with crossover help--elect their preferred candidates.

The Bartlett case arose under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows plaintiffs to bring lawsuits alleging that certain voting procedures or practices, including districting, dilutes minority voting strength.

One example of a Section 2 case involving schools was the recent federal district court decision in Levy v. Lexington County School District No. 3. In that Feb. 19 ruling, a judge held that the South Carolina school district’s at-large system for electing school board members diluted minority voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The judge ordered the parties to come up with a remedial plan.

The big Voting Rights Act case to be heard later this term involves Section 5 of the law, under which states and local jurisdictions throughout the South and in specified other areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination in voting must submit any changes in voting plans or procedures to the federal government for approval.

In Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder (No. 08-322), the utility district is challenging the 2006 extension by Congress of the Section 5 “preclearance” requirement for another 25 years. Many school boards across the South and elsewhere around the nation are subject to the preclearance requirement.

The case is set for argument on April 29.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.