WASHINGTON - In May, 13 Asian and Hispanic residents of Lowell, Massachusetts, filed a voting rights lawsuit against the city government, alleging the at-large electoral system, in which the winner takes all, dilutes the minority vote and discriminates against the candidates from community of color running for office.
The plaintiffs asked the federal court to rule that the city’s electoral system “violates Section 2 the Voting Rights Act” and for “the adoption of at least one district-based seat.”
The first hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Tuesday before the U.S. District Court in Boston. Lowell’s City Council filed a motion to dismiss in its first response to the residents’ lawsuit on Sept. 15.
At the Tuesday hearing, the judge will decide whether to allow the suit to move forward. If it does, Lowell will be going to trial against some of its residents.
“We’re not surprised” by the city’s response, said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
Lowell prides itself as being a diverse city, but “it remains to be seen” whether the city wants to “reflect diversity in the hall of power,” Sellstrom said.
City officials said they could not discuss the lawsuit because the issue is still in executive session.
Voting Rights Act
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 Lowell citizens’ lawsuit is based on the section of that law that specifically prohibits state and local governments from using voting systems that result in discrimination against racial or ethnic minorities.
This is important in Lowell because altogether the minority populations of the former mill town come close — 49.2 percent — to being the majority. Of the minority population, Asian-Americans form the largest minority group, about 21 percent, a cohort that includes more than 30,000 Cambodians.
Since 1999, only four Asian and Hispanic candidates have been elected to the Lowell City Council, which is currently all white. No non-white candidates have ever been elected to the school committee, Lowell’s version of a school board.
No matter how the judge decides, the City Council will be looking at the possibility of changing the city’s form of government, which includes the voting system. There have been two public discussion sessions on the issue since August.
“It is better for us and the citizen to have a district representation with a combination of at-large councilor, and it is better for the public to elect the mayor,” said James Leary, a city councilor and one of the three councilors leading the ad hoc subcommittee on the charter review that was formed in June.
In the next few months, after organizing several public sessions across the city, the committee is expected to make recommendations to the City Council on changing or keeping the current form of government.
After reviewing the committee’s recommendation, the City Council will make a decision on which direction to take. Before anything changes in Lowell, though, residents will be faced with a ballot measure in November 2018 using the current system.