Lowell settlement scraps city’s current electoral system

New approach expected to boost minority representation

THE CITY OF LOWELL settled a federal lawsuit filed by a group of Asian-American and Latino voters by agreeing to scrap the voting system the municipality has used for the last 62 years and to replace it with one of four options that will be studied, voted on by city residents, and put into operation for the 2021 election.

The lawsuit two years ago following a story a year earlier in CommonWealth that attempted to explain why whites control city government in Lowell. The story concluded a key reason was the city’s entirely at-large voting system, which awards seats on the city council and school committee to the top vote-getters regardless of where they live in the city. Under the at-large voting system, representatives from neighborhoods with higher voter turnout, most notably the city’s predominantly white Belvidere section, tended to dominate city elections.

In a press release issued Wednesday, the city said many voters may feel the current electoral system has served the municipality well, and resulted in the election of several minority candidates in recent years. But city officials, without conceding that the current electoral system violates the Voting Rights Act, indicated in the consent decree they signed that they “believe that a change to Lowell’s electoral system is in the best interest of Lowell’s residents.”

“The city recognizes that the current system has the potential to dilute the voting strength of a minority population; it also recognizes that there are potential benefits in other electoral systems that may improve on the current system,” the press release said.

The Lowell City Council will review four different types of electoral systems – a district-based system with representatives serving specific geographical regions of the municipality, a hybrid system of district and at-large representatives, an at-large system using ranked-choice voting, and a system of three districts with officials selected using ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank by preference all of the candidates in an election. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the initial round of voting, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the votes of his or her supporters are redirected to the candidate they ranked second. In the race for a single seat, the process continues until one candidate emerges with a plurality. The Lowell consent decree said the winners in the ranked-choice voting option would be selected the same way they are in Cambridge, where winners must attain a certain threshold of support. 

The City Council plans to narrow the electoral system options from four to two in early September and then put the two options before voters in a nonbinding election in November. “The ultimate choice will be made by the Council in December 2019, with consideration to the outcome of the ballot,” the press release said. The new electoral system would also have to be incorporated into legislation requiring the approval of the Legislature and the governor.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

According to data contained in the settlement agreement, minorities constitute 50 percent of Lowell’s population, with Asian-American and Hispanic/Latino residents accounting for 41 percent.

By contrast, the citizen voting-age population in Lowell is 58.6 percent white, 17.3 percent Asian, 17.4 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 5.2 percent black/African-American.