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A recent U.S. Supreme Court case may hold implications for the way that USD 259 Board of Education members are elected in Wichita. The Supreme Court on Aug. 19 overturned an appeals court decision and reinstated a federal court’s ruling that an election in Georgia should be halted.
The case, Rose, Richard et al. v. Raffensperger, reviewed the voting procedure of a Georgia utility commission, the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC), in which district representatives are voted on through statewide elections instead of by district.
The original case argued that the voting structure inherently dilutes the power of the Black vote within Georgia when choosing the representative on the commission that they wanted. Similarly, many in Wichita argue that the voting process for the USD 259 board, where each district’s representative is voted on citywide, dilutes the power of minority communities.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, agreed with the plaintiffs in the original case.
The district court ruling stated: “Since 1906, commissioners on the Public Service Commission for the State of Georgia have been elected on a statewide, at-large basis. Today, the Court finds that this method of election unlawfully dilutes the votes of Black citizens under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and must change.”
Wichita has similarly elected its USD 259 school board members through at-large voting since 1994, when voters in a city ballot initiative elected to have voters citywide elect district representatives. On Nov. 8, Wichita voters will get a chance to change how school board elections are held. The current proposal would have only residents of a district vote on their representative.
Background on the case
The PSC in Georgia is responsible for electricity, natural gas, telephone company rates and other utility pricing.
In 2020, Black activists and voters in Georgia sued the Georgia secretary of state, demanding that the judge eliminate the at-large elections for the PSC. At the time, the commission’s five seats were filled by five white Republican lawmakers, and it had only ever had one Black member.
As in Wichita’s school board, each of the five members had to live in their district, but were voted upon by people both within and outside the district.
“These folks deserve to have their votes count and have the same weight as everybody else in the state,” said Wanda Mosley, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This current system is steeped with biases that prevent Black voters from having an opportunity to elect someone who will govern with their best interests in mind.”
After the plaintiffs won the case in the district court, the case was appealed by Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in favor of Raffensperger and based its decision on “the Purcell principle,” the idea that federal courts cannot make a ruling on election rules while close to an election.
It was the appellate court’s use of the Purcell principle that was overturned by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court did not directly rule on the underlying issue of whether the Voting Rights Act was being violated.
The connection to Wichita’s school board elections
The unsigned order only overturned the appellate court’s decision to let the election proceed, instead postponing the PSC election until the underlying issues are worked out in court.
The original lower court ruling may still hold implications for Wichita’s USD 259 school board elections.
Jeffrey Jackson, interim dean of Washburn University Law School, said the district court’s ruling in Georgia shows that at-large voting structures can be successfully challenged.
“It is an example of a court finding that the type of procedure that Wichita uses to be a violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Jackson said. “It has some value, some authority, that these types of arrangements might be suspect … it shows that they might be diluting minority voting rights.”
Jackson also said there are still challenges to drawing a one-to-one parallel between the case in Georgia and Wichita’s Board of Education. For example, a district judge would have to determine their ruling based on an “extremely local appraisal” of the facts by examining any history of minority discrimination in Wichita and whether there is any historical precedent of racism on the school board.
“It does show that elections like this can be a problem especially when you have districts that are racially polarized, that is districts with a high minority population,” Jackson said.
At the Aug. 22 school board meeting, the Wichita school board voted to place a ballot measure on the November general election for this year. It asks voters whether they prefer the current system of citywide voting or whether it should be changed to district-based voting. It passed 4-3 with the three dissenting votes coming from Republican-backed board members Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler.