Lowell Rejects Proportional Representation – 1957

The following was originally posted on today’s Substack newsletter. In the future, I will continue transmitting my weekly Lowell Politics newsletter via Substack at 4am on Sundays, but will publish the same content here on richardhowe.com a few hours later.


I was away last week and was unable to watch Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting either live or on replay afterwards. I’ll report on it next Sunday. In the meantime, here is Part II of my “Lowell Adopts Plan E: 1942” story that was the subject of last Sunday’s newsletter (I’ve since reposted it on richardhowe.com). This week, the story of how Lowell rejected proportional representation for the election of city councilors and school committee members.

The 1953 Lowell City Council election was perhaps the most turbulent in the city’s history with the outcome decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court at the end of March 1954, four months after the election. In addition, a mayor wasn’t elected until the middle of April when John Janas was elected.

After all the turmoil of the 1953 election, it was not surprising that Lowell voters wanted change in the next election. The target became not Plan E, but proportional representation. A referendum appeared on the November 8, 1955, city election ballot proposing that “plurality voting” replace proportional representation as the method of electing city councilors and school committee members. Under plurality voting, the nine city councilors would all be elected at large with each voter able to vote for nine candidates. The top nine vote getters would be elected to the council.

Proportional representation lost overwhelmingly with 21,498 voting to get rid of it and 13,989 voting to keep it. However, Councilor Samuel Sampson who wanted to retain proportional representation filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the result of the referendum on the grounds that the city had failed to comply with the requirement that a copy of the referendum by mailed to every registered voter prior to the election. On March 12, 1957, Superior Court Judge Reuben Lurie agreed with Sampson and invalidated the referendum vote. Proponents of plurality voting vowed to have another referendum ready for the 1957 city election.

The “out with proportional representation” forces returned two years later. Although the League of Women Voters wanted to retain PR voting, there was a strong movement against it with some elected officials and even individual citizens placing anti-PR ads in the newspaper. For instance, Mary Worthen Duggan of 187 North Llewellyn St signed an ad that said, “Vote American: Vote Yes.” Council Candidate William Geary urged scraping PR, saying voting should be simple to understand. He also wrote that PR allows “Communists and fellow travelers” to win in many places. Patrick O’Connor placed an ad that said PR is anti-American and pro-Communist. “We are all Americans. No American citizen should have to flaunt his race to get recognition from voters.”

On November 5, 1957, the voters of Lowell once again rejected proportional representation with 21,214 voting to replace it with plurality voting and 12,881 voting to retain it.

In the 1959 election, the first to use plurality voting rather than proportional representation, five incumbents lost (George A. Ayotte, Patrick J. Walsh Jr., John Dukeshire, Roger S. Hoar, and George P. Macheras). Among the five new councilors elected was the first woman elected under Plan E, Ellen Sampson, the spouse of Councilor Samuel Sampson who had died suddenly age 53 in the midst of the prior council term. The other new councilors were William Moriarty, Harold W. Hartwell Jr., Arthur G. Gendreau, and John J. Desmond. The incumbents who were reelected were John Janas, Samuel Pollard, Raymond Lord and Joseph Downes.

The order of finish and vote totals for the 1959 city council was:

  1. John Janas – 22,273
  2. William Moriarty – 17,005
  3. Harold Hartwell – 16,919
  4. Samuel Pollard – 16,701
  5. Raymond Lord – 16,381
  6. Ellen Sampson – 16,072
  7. Arthur Gendreau – 14,761
  8. John Desmond – 14,315
  9. Joseph Downes – 13,977

On Monday, January 4, 1960, Raymond A. Lord was elected mayor on the first ballot by an eight to one vote.

This all At Large system of election councilors and school committee members persisted until the 2021 city election when the city changed to a hybrid system of eight district and three at large councilors and four district and two at large school committee members.