Lawsuit challenges Lowell at-large voting

Says approach leads to all white city government

A CIVIL RIGHTS GROUP has brought a federal lawsuit against the City of Lowell alleging that its electoral system has led to a stark lack of minority representation in city government.

In the suit, filed in US District Court in Boston on Thursday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice alleges that the city’s at-large voting system violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

Unlike most cities, Lowell has no ward-based seats; the winning candidates for council and school committee are the top vote-getters regardless of where they live in the city. As a result, representatives from neighborhoods with high turnout, most notably the city’s Belvidere section, which is far whiter and wealthier than the city as a whole, tend to dominate city government. Currently, six of the city’s nine city councilors live in Belvidere. An April 2016 CommonWealth magazine article brought renewed attention to the issue.

“This case is about the right to vote and the principle that everyone’s vote should count equally,” said Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for the Lawyers’ Committee. “Unfortunately that’s not the case in Lowell today. Lowell’s discriminatory electoral system dilutes the votes of people of color in a way that is both unfair and illegal.”

Lowell Mayor Edward Kennedy declined comment because he hadn’t had a chance to review the lawsuit.

In the past, Lowell officials have defended the at-large voting system as an integral part of its Plan E form of government, which, as originally outlined under state statute, features a strong city manager and a lack of voting districts. Such a system, officials have said, has prevented the city from getting mired in parochial concerns and helped fuel its economic development. They’ve also pointed to efforts the city has made to boost voter turnout in neighborhoods like the Lower Highlands, where many Cambodian-Americans live.

Lowell has grown increasingly diverse over the past few decades, with a sizable Asian community made up largely of Cambodian refugees and their descendants; today, the city is 51 percent white. Despite fielding a number of candidates in city elections in recent elections, members of the Asian and other minority communities have won seats on only two occasions over the past 20 years. There are currently no minority elected officials in Lowell.

In all, 13 Asian and Hispanic residents of Lowell are named as plaintiffs in the suit, which seeks an injunction on Lowell’s current voting system and the adoption of at least one district-based seat.

Lowell’s minority communities are “sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district” and behave in a “politically cohesive” way, which constitute two preconditions for bringing a claim under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, according to the lawsuit.

Lowell is the only city in Massachusetts with a population over 100,000 that still uses an exclusively at-large election system. Other cities have adopted a mix of district-based and at-large seats, at times in response to legal pressure from civil rights groups. Springfield, for example, switched to such a system after the Lawyers’ Committee initiated legal action in 2005. Today, the city’s elected bodies are considerably more diverse.

The lawsuit against Lowell also alleges that its political system has had adverse impacts on the city’s minority communities.

“Outreach to communities of color, including translation services, is lacking at all levels of government,” the complaint states. “City services and amenities are unequally distributed. Minorities are significantly under-represented in city jobs—including in the Lowell Police Department and in the Lowell Public Schools—and minority students face achievement gaps and disparities in school discipline.”

Past efforts to change the voting system in Lowell have foundered in the face of resistance from the city’s dominant voting bloc. In February 2016, a city councilor made a motion to discuss switching to a district-based system that failed to get seconded by anyone else on the council.

Sellstrom said the fact that past reform efforts had made little headway led the Lawyers’ Committee to file the lawsuit, rather than engage the city in a less formal manner.

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“The city has been unwilling to change its unfair and discriminatory electoral system on its own,” he said. “That’s why judicial intervention is necessary.”

Ted Siefer is a contributing writer for CommonWealth.