Lowell, a Massachusetts mill town known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, has recovered from a steep economic decline during the mid-20th century and is now a thriving and diverse melting pot, where members of ethnic and racial minorities are almost a majority of the population.
Despite this demographic shift, all six school committee members and nine city councilors are white, which doesn’t sit well with the many residents who are not.
In May, 13 plaintiffs representing Asian-American and Hispanic voters filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Lowell’s at-large electoral system discriminated against them and people from their communities running for city offices.
The court's decision is not expected for at least a year, but the Lowell City Council is holding a special meeting June 27 with one item on the agenda: How should the city respond to the lawsuit? Should Lowell try to fight the suit in court, or place a referendum on the November election ballot asking voters whether they want to change or retain the at-large voting process?
The lawsuit asks the federal court to rule that Lowell's current voting system violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act, and to order the city to change to a system where votes by members of minority groups are not "improperly diluted,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
“This lack of representation has profound impact on the community whose voices are not being heard,” Sellstrom told VOA Khmer. The suit alleges that impact extends to employment opportunities for members of the underrepresented groups.
Citywide voting only since 1957
Lowell now has the second-largest Cambodian-American community in the United States. The city implemented citywide or at-large district voting — also known as a winner-take-all electoral system — in 1957, shifting away from a system where voters chose candidates from separate lists in each ward.
Nationwide, at-large voting systems have faced criticism because candidates from varying social, racial and economic groups must compete against each other.
The Lowell lawsuit is similar to an earlier case that overturned winner-take-all voting in another Massachusetts city, Springfield. Supporters say both efforts belong to the long tradition of Americans fighting for equality in voting rights.
The Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in August 1965 is considered one of the most significant pieces of civil-rights legislation ever enacted in the United States.
The law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting has been reviewed and argued over frequently during the past half-century, and Congress has amended it five times. Complaints filed to the U.S. Department of Justice over the years have centered on disputes between majority and minority communities in the nation — struggles that often play out as a contest between those who have privileges, power and wealth, and those who do not.
The Lowell lawsuit singles out a section of the Voting Rights Act that specifically prohibits state and local governments from using voting systems that result in discrimination against racial or ethnic minorities.
At-large voting hampers minorities
Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American to win a statehouse race anywhere in the U.S., speaking to VOA Khmer after he was re-elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives last year, said at-large electoral systems often favor the candidates most able to raise funds and discourage candidates without deep pockets, or who are members of minority communities, from entering the fray.
“First, we [minority candidates] tend to not have enough funds to run a citywide campaign, and then it’s difficult for us to gain enough support. So really, two things we face are campaign funding shortage and [a lack of] supporters,” Mom said.
Today’s Lowell reflects his observations. It’s home to 110,558 people — 50.72 percent of them white or Caucasian. The racial and ethnic minorities who make up 49 percent of city's ethnicities originate in Asia, Africa, Hispanic countries or elsewhere, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Of the nine current city councilors, six are from the predominantly white and well-to-do Belvidere neighborhood. In 2015, the average household income there was $68,618, compared with a citywide average of $47,727, according to a private firm that collects and analyzes data about communities throughout the country.
Lianna Kushi, 33, a Japanese-American who works for a nonprofit and has lived in Lowell for 10 years, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. She says the at-large voting system needs to change.
“I believe the current at-large electoral system, unfortunately, is not fair, and does not allow for everyone to be represented in the city council and school committee,” Kushi told VOA. “That is the reason why I participated in this lawsuit.”
White councilor's opposing view
Lowell City Councilor James Leary, who is white, says the lack of minority representation is not the result of the voting system. He blames the candidates.
“People who run need to really work hard to get elected,” Leary said. The father of two children, he served as a school committee member for 10 years before voters elected him to the city council seat in 2016. He is also a vice president of a local insurance agency.
“I think a lot of folks [who ran] do not want to put effort and time in getting actually elected,” Leary said.
Lowell resident Vesna Noun, a Cambodian-American, put in the effort. He ran for a city council seat in 2010 and won. That was his first campaign, but when he ran for re-election, he lost in 2013 and 2015. He is running again this November.
Since 1999 only four candidates from Asian or Hispanic communities have been elected to the city council. Voters have never selected a minority for the Lowell School Committee.
“I find it hard [to believe] that people have a problem voting for a Cambodian person, because it’s an at-large system,” Leary said. “Give me an example that is real, in terms of me not representing somebody. And I don’t see that; I don’t have anybody coming up to me that says, ‘You don’t represent me.'"
Lowell's mayor: No comment
The city government has been silent since the lawsuit was filed, although residents tracking the issue have called for a dialogue. Mayor Ed Kennedy said he had no comment on the issue. Leary, however, said: “If people want to have change … then we should listen and have that dialogue."
Sidney Liang, a Cambodian-American, directs a branch of the state government's Mass in Motion program for civic engagement from the Lowell Community Health Center. He agrees with Leary and hopes the city will have an open discussion about the voting-rights lawsuit with its residents.
“We have no one to represent us at the city of Lowell,” Liang said, and he feels it’s time for those in power to listen to the complaints. He is a 30-year Lowell resident who takes pride in the city's striking diversity and believes that minorities should be better represented on the town's governing bodies.
“This isn’t about Asian and Latino, this is about all voices being heard in our political system,” Lianna Kushi said. “If we have nine city council seats, and [six] school committee seats, they should not represent one type of voice.”
Reform effort failed in 2009
A referendum in 2009 proposed that the city adopt a form of proportional representation for local offices -- still electing candidates citywide, but choosing them on the basis of voters' numerical rankings, listing the candidates they preferred as their first choice, second choice, and so on. Winners would be chosen after the ballots were combined on a weighted basis.
Opponents said that system was too complicated, and voters rejected it, 6,786-5,136. Even if the question had been approved, turnout for the referendum was too low to implement any changes in the city charter.
Last year one city councilor tried to have Lowell adopt a mixed electoral system, but the attempt failed because no one would second the council member's motion.
The federal lawsuit in 2006 that forced Springfield, Massachusetts, to change its electoral system from at-large to a mix of ward-based and district-based systems is very similar to the action sought by Lowell residents.
For former City Councilor Noun, the outcome in Springfield, less than 150 kilometers from Lowell, is a reason for hope. “I am very confident that we will win this case. I can bet on it. … It’s just a matter of time.”