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.

One Response to Changing Lowell’s Voting Method

  1. Paul Early says:

    Thanks Dick for your post it as usual is thorough. I brought my daughter, about to turn 18 and my brother Lance from out of town to the event. He was quite impressed. We discussed the various options. At first I seemed to think that the district options would be the best. Then I started thinking about the long term and the disadvantages of the various systems. It seemed to us that the ranked choice options have a steeper voter curve to get started than options 1 or 2, but they would not last long. And the disadvantages of 1 & 2 would be to encourage long term incumbency.

    I foresee that districts would promote more parochialism or provincialism and as minority groups start to spread out more through the city it will become harder and harder to define the districts. This can lead to more division over setting district boundaries. I can also see that there could be grumbling about the fact that someone’s cousin is not in their district.

    The ranked choice would tend to minimize this, especially option 3. Ranked choice would continue to take into account minority groups no matter how they spread throughout the city. The last two options, 3 & 4, would also allow for a greater variety of positions to be supported in city government, in other words it would allow for a greater diversity of representation, not just for minority ethnic and racial groups, but for all groups.

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