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Changing Lowell’s Voting Method

Prof Theodore Arrington, city’s expert on statistics and voting systems

The city of Lowell hosted an information session last evening at the Lowell Senior Center to acquaint residents with the election system options available in the settlement of the lawsuit against the city for alleged violations of the federal Voting Rights Act. The primary speaker was Professor Theodore Arrington who has been retained by the city as its expert witness for statistics and voting systems. City Solicitor Christine O’Connor assisted in answering questions.

Professor Arrington explained that the plaintiffs brought the lawsuit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, specifically the portion of Section 2 that outlaws “vote dilution.” Most claims in this section allege that a city’s use of at-large/multimember elections (as we have in Lowell) prevent minority voters from casting sufficient votes to elect their preferred candidates thereby allowing a cohesive majority group to win every seat in every election.

The lead case that interprets this section of the law, Thornburg v. Gingles, a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision, established a three part statistical test to determine a violation. Professor Arrington emphasized that the evidence needed to win a lawsuit like this was entirely statistical and that intent was not relevant. He then said that when he reviewed census data for Lowell and historic and detailed election results, he concluded that the plaintiffs passed “the Gingles test” and would win at trial. For that reason, he said the City Council was prudent to have settled the case since going to trial would have cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees and would have further divided the city politically.

Most of the presentation was spent reviewing the settlement in which the parties agreed to four different voting methods that were all acceptable to the plaintiffs. It is up to the City Council, no later than December 3, 2019, to choose one of those systems to be used in future Lowell city elections beginning in 2021.

The settlement also gives the City Council the option of designating two of the possible voting methods as “finalists” and placing a referendum question on the November 2019 city election ballot which would ask voters to express their preference of those two choices.

Professor Arrington explained that the council is not required to put these questions on the ballot, nor is it required to accept the one that gets the most votes in the referendum, but the reason for that is a legal one. It is the council’s responsibility to make the decision and the council cannot legally delegate that responsibility to the voters by making the referendum a binding one. Although he never came right out and said it, Professor Arrington clearly implied that the council would almost certainly be guided by the will of the voters as expressed in the referendum.

As for the four systems, here they are:

Option 1: DISTRICT BASED REPRESENTATION

  • 9 city council districts with one councilor each
  • At least 2 districts would be drawn to be majority-minority
  • The top vote-getter in that district wins the seat
  • Total of 9 councilors
  • School committee, there would be 3 districts
  • Each school committee district consists of 3 council districts
  • At least one school committee district to be majority-minority
  • Top 2 candidates in each school committee district would win
  • Total of 6 school committee members
  • Mayor still elected by councilors; still serves on school committee
  • District lines drawn by independent expert based on 2020 Census

Option 2: MIX OF DISTRICTS AND AT-LARGE (“HYBRID”)

  • Hybrid 8/1 System
    • 8 city council districts with one councilor elected from each
    • 1 councilor elected citywide
    • Total of 9 councilors
    • School committee has 4 districts
    • Each school committee district consists of 2 council districts
    • Total of 6 school committee members
    • Mayor still elected by council; still serves on school committee
    • At least two council districts to be majority-minority
    • At least one school committee district to be majority-minority
    • District lines drawn by independent expert based on 2020 Census
  • Hybrid 8/3 System
    • Increases council to 11 members
    • 8 city council districts with one councilor elected from each
    • 3 councilors elected citywide
    • All else the same as 8/1 above
  • Hybrid 7/2 System
    • 7 city council districts with one councilor elected from each
    • 2 councilors elected citywide
    • Total of 9 councilors
    • At least 2 districts drawn to be majority-minority
    • 7 school committee districts with one member elected from each
    • School committee uses same districts as council
    • Mayor elected by council but WOULD NOT serve on school committee

Option 3: AT-LARGE RANKED CHOICE VOTING

  • 9 councilors
  • 6 school committee members
  • All run at-large (throughout city, just as now)
  • Instead of voting for up to 9 councilors and 6 SC members, voters rank order the candidates based on voter preference
  • Also known as “single transferable vote.” You only get one vote but if your #1 choice wins by a lot or loses by a lot, your one vote gets transferred to your #2 choice, then your #3 choice, and so on, until all offices are filled.

Option 4: THREE DISTRICT REPRESENTATION

  • City divided into 3 districts
  • 3 councilors elected from each district
  • 2 school committee members elected from each district
  • Use RANKED CHOICE VOTING within districts

So those are the four options. Remember, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have already expressed their preference: they would be content with any of these four. It is now up to the 9 current city councilors to choose which system will be used in Lowell beginning with the 2021 city election.

In the coming days, I will try to write more about this issue, sharing some of the questions that have arisen at the information sessions I have attended.

Lowell Votes, an independent voter advocacy and civic engagement group, is sponsoring an information session tomorrow night (Thursday, August 22, 2019) at 6pm at the Lowell Housing Authority’s Armand Mercier Center at 21 Salem Street. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Mass. Senate race: an embarrassment of riches? by Marjorie Arons-Barron

No one has a right to hold onto an office in perpetuity, but having served a long time shouldn’t necessarily be a disqualifier. Senator Ed Markey has been in public office nearly half a century.  The one-term+ US Senator has been in  Washington for 43 years,  both as a member of the House and of the Senate. He has been a national leader on telecommunications, energy and climate change, a staunch supporter of gun safety and universal health care access.  The possibility that three-term Congressman Joe Kennedy, 38, may be considering running against him poses the question of whether, given their general agreement on issues, one should mount a challenge just because a younger generation may be tired of Ed Markey, age 73.  Or perhaps voters don’t really know him or his record.

I have covered Ed Markey for 43 years, since he topped a field of 12 candidates running for the House seat being vacated by Torbert McDonald, a Kennedy insider remembered mostly for falling asleep at his desk in the House chamber.  Markey, son of a milkman, visited Washington for the first time as congressman-elect.  Since his days as a freshman, he has grown in substance and effectiveness. He has poured his life into serving the public on cutting-edge issues, frequently becoming the leading expert and building support for change.  While his often-staccato way of speaking can be annoying,  his actions have been on target and consistent.  His electoral vulnerability speaks to a generational shift and, as evidenced by Ayanna Pressley’s surprise 2018 upset of longtime congressman Michael Capuano, a desire for something and someone new.

But 4th district Congressman Joe Kennedy III isn’t just the newest shiny object.  He is the real deal.  Scion of Massachusetts political royalty, he is the most down-to-earth of the clan, charming, bright, articulate, hard-working and, yes, even humble.  A Peace Corps alum, fluent in Spanish, Kennedy graduated from Stanford and Harvard Law School, worked in non-profits serving the young and disadvantaged, and as an assistant district attorney. In the House, he has developed relationships across the country and across the aisle. His demeanor and seriousness of purpose led to his being tapped to give the Democratic response to President Trump’s 2018 State-of-the-Union speech.  His future would seem limitless.

But is this the right time?  He could, I suppose, be persuaded by Markey’s decision to drop out of the 1984 race for Paul Tsongas’ open Senate seat in 1984, remembering that it was 30 years before another opportune moment arose (when John Kerry left the Senate to become Secretary of State). A group of activists has formed a movement to draft JK3, and a privately funded poll reportedly found him somewhat favored to defeat Markey. (We don’t know what the actual numbers are.)   But because he might, does that mean he should?

Markey has received high-profile endorsements, from NARAL Pro-Choice America to party heavies and a majority of his Massachusetts House colleagues. (Seth Moulton and Ayanna Presley have not endorsed him. Cong. Katherine Clark will defer taking sides until a later time.) Today, Markey released a video of Elizabeth Warren enthusiastically restating her support of him.

Markey seems unlikely to retire, stepping aside for Kennedy.  He already has two other Democratic primary challengers, neither of whom would pose an existential threat. Kennedy, if he decided to run, would be the toughest opponent Markey has ever faced. Two good guys would be at each other’s throats, the old lion and the young alpha male. I really like both of them, who they are and what they stand for. The primary could cost well more than ten million dollars, money that could be better spent trying to win Senate seats in battleground states.

At this time, it appears the only things that separate them are age and style. And we’ll all have to decide if those factors are enough to throw the old warrior out of office. With both Warren and Markey in their ’70’s, it’s unlikely that Kennedy will have to wait  as long as Markey did to take his Senate shot.

Trump on gun violence: judge him by his actions by Marjorie Arons-Barron

photo Getty

In a speech prepared for him to read from the Oval Office, President Trump has condemned the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, calling for unity in opposing hatred, white supremacists, violence, especially on the internet and social media, and promising additional resources for the FBI in addressing domestic terrorism.  It approached presidential in content and tone, its language in stark contrast to the last three years of his behavior.

But even his improved rhetoric fell far short of serious gun safety reform and scarcely veils the same old same old.  George Conway, spouse of Trump adviser Kellyanne, called Trump an evil racist political leader, a narcissist and sociopath, whose twitter rants will resume quickly and obliterate his speech.   Senator Cory Booker’s assessment was even more to the point: “Such a bullshit soup of ineffective words.”

It is clear that two mass shootings in 24 hours, one shooter having published a manifesto railing against immigrants and Mexicans, seal our global brand as a leader in domestic terrorism.  It is also patently clear that the President is either clueless or simply deceitful about his complicity in degrading norms of behavior and giving license to the verbal and behavioral expression of racism, hatred and intolerance toward “others,” especially those who are different because of the color of their skin, ethnic heritage, or immigrant status.  This intolerance predated President Trump, but he has, for his own political purposes, encouraged white nationalism into the open. He has fanned the flames of division, notwithstanding today’s attempt to use the language of bringing people together.

Could this be a turning point?  History challenges that wisp of hope.  After Newtown, there were meetings at the highest level about changing gun laws. Nothing happened. After Parkland, some modest agreement seemed within reach, but the NRA had Trump’s ear, and he walked away.  Hope for change was rekindled, but, other than the narrow step of banning bump stocks after a terrible Las Vegas shooting, nothing happened.  (Bump stocks are an accessory that allows rifles to fire as rapidly as automatic weapons.)

As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, if the President is serious about meaningful background checks, he’ll get Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring to the floor two slightly bipartisan, House-passed bills achieving that goal. Donald Trump is mercurial, and one reasonably presidential call for unity in opposing hatred can’t hide the fact that his top priority is playing to the basest instincts of his base.

Trump is not alone in his cowardice.  CNN’s Jake Tapper has called out Republican officials in Texas who declined to speak out regarding the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, including Texas’ GOP governor, lieutenant governor, and two U.S. Senators as well as the Republican Governor of Ohio, all of whom dodged interviews.  Rare exceptions were Jeb Bush’s son Texas Lands Commissioner George P. Bush, who denounced white terrorism, and Republican state lawmaker John McCollister who called out his party for “enabling white supremacy.” “When the history books are written,” McCollister said, “I refuse to be someone who said nothing. The time is now for us Republicans to be honest with what is happening inside our party.”  He implored his GOP colleagues “to stand up and do the right thing.”

I doubt the once “grand old party” will respond to his appeal. I am not registered to either political party. I do believe, however, that, despite overwhelming public support, even among legal gun owners, for more meaningful background checks, the only chance for modest, let alone significant change will come when Donald Trump is kicked out of office and the Democrats regain control of the Senate. That’s where the focus for the next 15 months must remain, and where all of our energies must be directed.

Thoughts on the Second Democratic Party Debate (Part 1)

  1. The Democratic candidates need to argue over the best way to improve health care coverage and settle on a party position before Iowa. Let them have a health care insurance summit in September to sort this out. Come to an agreement and stick by it. Make it clear to the voters before the Iowa contest. Doing a summit with the issues debated in the open could be a national event if the core of the process is televised. Make it an event that highlights the Democratic Party’s commitment to getting coverage for all Americans. The risk otherwise is that their entire caucus/primary season will be dominated by the internal debate, taking their direct fire away from the Trump Administration and GOP Senate.
  2. Mayor Pete was smart to talk about his military service in Afghanistan. Nobody else up there had that credential.
  3. I didn’t know Delaney was an ex-health insurance executive or salesman (outed by Bernie)
  4. The optics were bad for Hickenlooper and Bullock at the fringes of the line up. Hard to make your points when the main action is going on center stage with Warren/Bernie.
  5. Marianne W. had a surprisingly blunt argument for paying reparations to black Americans—the issue has to be grappled with. (But this can’t be done without compensating native peoples also). Beto spoke well on this issue also. This is an example of liberals going right to the very complicated entree issue without digging in to the potatoes and peas of everybody’s interest, no matter the race or gender. The Dems are not talking enough about economics and job growth and higher wages.
  6. Bernie and Eliz talking about free college is tone deaf. This is like the military draft deferment during the Vietnam War for people like Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton. Why the special treatment for college attendees without a corresponding aid program for the trades or service industry workers? What percentage of Americans have college degrees? 35 percent maybe nationwide. I think it would be better to make public education free through grade 14, adding two years community college or comparable apprenticeship. How do you announce a Jubilee-type debt relief for college grads, Sen. Warren, when people have struggled to pay off college debt since the 1950s? 
  7. I wish there had been more talk about Climate Change/Green New Deal.
  8. The candidates are too passive. The screaming headline news of the past ten days has been Trump’s unhinged racist attacks. The candidates should have ignored moderators and spoken directly to the viewers one after the other, slamming Trump’s behavior, and dared the network to stop filming.
  9. Sen. Klobuchar could surprise everyone in Iowa if she can make the requirements for the next two debates in the fall. I hear she is pouring people over from Minnesota, under the mainstream media radar.
  10. The health care talk will be more centrist in the debate tonight.
  11. The second- and third-tier candidates are fading fast. One of them has to pull a stunt or do something more imaginative to get attention. Otherwise, it will be Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris after October 1 even if others are on the ballot. 
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