Thoughts on a New Voting System for Lowell

The settlement of the Voting Rights lawsuit against the city of Lowell identified six new ways of electing city councilors and school committee members. This coming Tuesday, councilors will select two of the six as the “finalists.” The two will appear on the city election ballot on November 5, 2019, to allow voters to indicate which of the two they prefer. Councilors will then select one of those two to be the method of electing councilors and school committee members starting with the 2021 city election.

Here are the six options:

Option 1: All District. Nine districts with one councilor elected from each. A majority of the people in at least two of the district must be members of minority groups. There would be three school committee districts (each consisting of three council districts) that would elect two school committee members each.

Option 2A – Mixed District and At Large (8/1). Eight council districts with one elected from each plus one councilor elected citywide. Four school committee districts with one member elected from each plus two members elected citywide.

Option 2B – Mixed District and At Large (8/3). Same as Option 2A except three councilors elected citywide with council size increased from 9 to 11 councilors.

Option 2C – Mixed District and At Large (7/2). Seven council districts with one elected from each plus two councilors elected citywide. Seven school committee members elected from the same seven districts. No at large school committee members. Mayor no longer serves on school committee.

Option 3 – Ranked Choice Voting. Same system as currently in place with nine councilors and six school committee members all elected at-large citywide, except ranked choice voting is used.

Option 4 – District with Rank Choice Voting. City divided into three district. Three councilors and two school committee members elected from each district by ranked choice voting within the district.

This coming Tuesday night, councilors will be called upon to vote for their two preferred options. When each councilor is called by the clerk, the councilor will state the two options he or she prefers. After all councilors have voted, the votes for each option will be tallied and the two systems with the greatest number of votes will be placed on the November ballot as non-binding referendum questions.

Which of these would be the best for Lowell? Here are some things to consider based on past experience in other communities:

Districts – Voters have closer contact with the person who represents them. Because that councilor is motivated to win re-election, he or she will be more focused on the inhabitants of the district and their needs and desires. For candidates, running in a district that’s just one-ninth of the city rather than the entire city makes person-to-person contact with voters more important. That means money should be less important while things like going door-to-door would be more important. However, the downside of a district system is that councilors can become overly focused on things that benefit their districts at the expense of the big picture for the city. History also shows that when districts are first implemented or when an incumbent chooses not to run, the race is very competitive but once someone is elected, he or she tends to remain in office for a long time and often does not face strong challengers. Finally, voter turnout tends to go down in a district system since citizens only vote for one candidate.

Mixed District and At-Large – A mix of some district and some at-large gives voters the benefit of a councilor interested mostly in the voter’s own district and one or more at-large councilors with a more citywide perspective. Residents have two votes: One for the district councilor and one (or more) for the at-large councilor or councilors. However, the fewer at-large seats there are, the less these advantages are realized. Of the three Mixed options, 2B provides the most at large councilors (3) however that also increases the council from a total of 9 to 11, something voters might not be willing to do. Option 2C does provide 2 at-large councilors, but that also keeps the Mayor from serving on the school committee. Right now, the mayor is the only true liaison between the council and school committee so eliminating the mayor’s presence on the school committee would potentially reduce communications and cooperation between the two bodies.

Ranked Choice Voting – Because this system drastically lowers the number of votes needed to win a seat, it gives candidates from different backgrounds and beliefs more opportunity to compile a winning coalition of voters. This option also eliminates the need to draw districts since all candidates run citywide. Ranked choice voting would allow residents to vote for any candidate regardless of where they lived. The biggest downside of this system is that counting the votes is very complicated. True, it is done by a computer and, importantly, there will be paper backup in case any questions arise. After studying this system closely for the past month, I believe the count would go smoothly enough, however, I do think many voters would initially have difficulty using it. Also, because all the candidates will be running together, having candidate nights or composing voter guides will be unwieldly. Finally, voters will have difficulty learning about such a large number of candidates, a problem that exists with the current system. Another characteristic of this system is that with a citywide campaign, money and name recognition would be more powerful than in a smaller district race.

A couple of additional points about districts: The settlement is silent on whether a candidate must live within a district to represent it, however, councilors (with the concurrence of the plaintiffs) could make residency a requirement. Also, if a district councilor did not complete his or her term, the second place finisher in that district would take office. If there was no second place finisher, a special election would be held to fill the seat. The districts would be drawn based on the 2020 census which would be available in April 2021 which would provide enough time to draw the districts for use in that year’s city election. As for who would draw the districts, the settlement requires the city to retain an outside consultant who is acceptable to the plaintiffs to assist in the drawing of the districts.

What do I think is going to happen Tuesday night? I predict that Option 2B (8 district and 3 at large councilors) will be one of the finalists selected by councilors. This “hybrid” system seems to be what everyone was expecting, mostly because that’s what is used in other Massachusetts cities like Boston, Springfield and Lawrence. While councilors voting for the 8/3 mix might get some grief for increasing the size of the council by two members, the other mixed options provide only one or two at-large councilors, hardly enough to make any difference (and much harder to get elected to if you’re an incumbent).

I predict that Option 3 (Ranked Choice Voting) will be the second finalist. This option seems the least disruptive in that it does not require districts to be drawn and it also gives current incumbents hope of re-election in the future since at least some of them would be ousted in a mostly district system given where they all live.

Which of the options do I prefer? After much contemplation and several changes of mind, I’m for Option 1, the all district system. Placing voters in closer proximity to the person who represents them in local government is a good thing. The more districts there are, the fewer people within each of them, so an all-district system promotes that objective. Through most of its history, Lowell was a collection of independent neighborhoods with a single central business district. Each of those neighborhoods was a self-supporting entity with its own retail district, park, churches and schools. People identified themselves by residency in that neighborhood. Beginning in the 1970s, that neighborhood identity has eroded away and I think the loss of that identity as a member of a smaller group (the neighborhood) has played a considerable role in making so many residents feel so removed from their city government. Having nine district races, all competitive in the first year, at least, could help revive that neighborhood identity. The winning candidates would certainly benefit from promoting that independent identity. District councilors could spend more time organizing block parties and promoting small retailers within their districts than racing from section to section for the next photo op which leaves little time to learn about the problems, concerns and desires of the residents of each neighborhood.

My desire for Option 1 is enhanced by concerns I have about the other options. None of the three mixed systems have enough at-large councilors to offset the number of districts. They are all essentially district-lite and would bring the worst of the district system and the worst of the at-large system. If we’re going to have districts, let’s go all-in.

As for Ranked Choice Voting, I find it intriguing and it would be my second choice, but while the possibility exists that it would bring a different outcome from past elections, it is only a possibility. Again, if we’re going to make a change, let’s be bold and make a big change. The only guarantee of that is the all-district system.

5 Responses to Thoughts on a New Voting System for Lowell

  1. Shawn Ashe says:

    I’ve been in favor of Ranked Choice since I read the report from Harvard Business School by Gehl and Porter.


    Their work testing this across the country has created some interesting results.

    To me, its best attribute is that an incumbent cannot throw another candidate into a race to eliminate a strong challenger. They cannot depend on a strong base, and have to work for every vote because all votes continue to count, instead of getting thrown away if your first choice was weak.

    I tend to agree that we need to break the power of the party duopoly. Neither party has any incentive to actually solve problems anymore.

  2. DickH says:

    Right now, there is no requirement for districts that the person elected lived within that district. However, many of us expect the current council to impose that requirement should one of the district options be selected. Hopefully that will be done before the referendum.

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  3. Peter Healey says:

    The “Ranked Choice Voting” system you describe here is properly called the Single Transferrable Vote system. RCV is used to elect one winner, and is generally understood to be appropriate for executive positions- mayors, county executives, etc. Single Transferrable Vote is used for several winners as is proposed here.