Settlement of Voting Rights Lawsuit

Two years ago eleven Lowell residents sued the city on the grounds that the current method of electing members of the city council and school committee violates the Federal voting rights act and the U.S. Constitution by diluting the votes of minority residents of the city. After many months of negotiations, the parties seem to have settled the case with the city agreeing to change the method of electing councilors and school committee members.

I say “seemed to have settled the case” because nothing is final thus far. Instead, the parties have agreed to several different electoral systems, one of which the city council will select in time for the 2021 city election. Here are the choices:

District: In this system, there would be nine districts each of which would elect one city councilor. At least two of these districts would be drawn so that a majority of residents of voting age would be Asian-Americans and Latino-Hispanics. For the school committee, there would be just three districts (each made up of three of the city council districts). Each school committee district would elect two school committee members.

Hybrid: A hybrid system is a combination of district and at-large representatives. There are three hybrid options included in the settlement.

The “8-1 Hybrid” would have eight district councilors (with at least two majority-minority districts) plus one at-large councilor.

The “8-3 Hybrid” would have the district councilor arrangement but would have three at-large councilors (meaning the total number of councilors would rise from nine to eleven. In both of these systems, the school committee would have four districts (each consisting of two council districts) with each school committee district electing one member plus two at-large school committee seats.

In both of these systems, councilors would elect the mayor from amongst themselves and the mayor would serve as the seventh member of the school committee.

The “7-2 Hybrid” would have seven single-member council districts (with two being majority/minority districts) plus two at large councilors. Under this system, the school committee would consist of seven districts, each electing one member. Although the council would still elect the mayor, the mayor would no longer be a member of the school committee.

At-Large Proportional Representation: This option would retain nine councilors and six school committee members, all elected at-large, but they would all be elected in a proportional representation system such as that in use in Cambridge. (In a PR system, voters rank order their choices with candidates with strong support from a smaller number of voters have a better chance of winning).

Combination: The city would be divided into three districts. Each would elect three councilors and two school committee members, however, they would be chosen by proportional representation.

As for the process of selecting the system that ultimately would be utilized, the current city council would have a “review period” in which to study and hold public meetings about the various options. However, the review period would be brief since the council would have to select two “finalist systems” no later than September 3, 2019. The council would then formulate two non-binding questions to be placed on the November 5, 2019 ballot, asking voters which of the two “finalist systems” they would prefer.

After the November 5, 2019 election but prior to December 3, 2019, the would select one of the two finalists systems to be implemented for the November 2021 election. Once this choice was made, the council would file a Home Rule Petition with the State Legislature which, if and when passed by the legislature, would enact the new system.

4 Responses to Settlement of Voting Rights Lawsuit

  1. Paul Early says:

    Dick,

    Thank you for this report. I found it much clearer then what I saw in the Lowell Sun today. When I finished reading your post, I wondered about how the ballot on this would operate. Would we be voting up or down on each option? What I’m trying to get at is whether or not the current system will have to be a baseline. I had assumed, and it sounds like I was wrong, that we would need a majority to support a new election system. Otherwise, we would keep our current system.

    Perhaps, having two options on the ballot would force the situation between options A & B, which would automatically eliminate the possibility of our current system.

    Is there a minimum percentage-of-the-vote threshold for one option to be valid for a home rule option? Is there a minimum voter participation requirement? Would this participation rate be based on the total population? On registered voters?

  2. DickH says:

    Paul – the settlement agreement makes clear that the referendum is non-binding and really just part of the information gathering process councilors will use to determine which of the options listed in the settlement will become our new system of electing councilors and school committee members.

    The two ballot questions will be independent of each other. Voters will vote yes or no for both. Conceivably, the “yes” votes could prevail on both. Conversely, so could the no votes. But it really makes no difference because keeping the current system is not one of the options available to councilors under the settlement.

    That said, there seems to be no guarantee that the state legislature will pass the home rule petition required to be submitted by the council in support of the new system.

    If the legislature fails to pass the proposal, I’m not sure what the U.S. District Court would do. Would the court (a federal court) have the power to overrule the state legislature and force the new system to be enacted? I don’t know the answer to that. Hopefully we won’t have to worry about it.

  3. Paul Early says:

    Thanks Dick! I appreciate your detailed and informative reply. I am hopeful that we will have a change here in Lowell.

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