Lowell’s Voting Rights Challenge
The following guest commentary is also undersigned by U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, Nancy Donahue, Brian Martin, Luis Pedroso, Tim Thou, Fru Nkimbeng, and Rev. Dr. Cecilio Hernández.
By Michael Gallagher
Special to The Sun
In Lowell, we have a long history of turning challenges into opportunities. For example, when faced with economic downturns in the past, our City has found ways to revitalize our local economy and create a thriving urban center which today boasts an outstanding university and community college, an urban National Park, professional baseball and theater, a diversified business base, and at Western Avenue the largest community of artists in the country.
We would respectfully suggest that the time is right for us to do the same with the pending voting rights lawsuit. Why not turn this challenge into an opportunity to make change which will strengthen our City’s elected bodies and improve city governance?
The voting rights lawsuit was brought in May 2017 by a diverse group of Lowell residents, alleging that our current “at-large” electoral system -- where all candidates run city-wide -- inequitably dilutes the vote of the city’s minority communities. The basic argument is that an at-large electoral system allows a majority group of only 51 percent to control 100 percent of the seats and win all races in every election.
For this reason, federal courts have often found that at-large systems violate the federal Voting Rights Act when minority communities -- and often whole neighborhoods -- are routinely out-voted and left without a voice in the system. District-based electoral systems, or hybrid systems which combine district and at-large seats, are often the solution to at-large systems because they tend to create more diversity in elected bodies and avoid vote dilution.
The basic facts underlying the current lawsuit against Lowell are undeniable. Although we pride ourselves on our city’s rich diversity, our elected bodies simply have not reflected this diversity. While numerous qualified minority candidates have run, only a handful have ever been elected to the City Council or School Committee. As a result, issues important to minority communities and their neighborhoods receive less attention than they otherwise would, and important voices go missing from policy debates. Notably, Lowell is the last large Massachusetts city to maintain an exclusively at-large plurality electoral system.
The question before us now is plain: Should Lowell continue to litigate this lawsuit or should we turn this challenge into an opportunity and create an electoral system which makes sense for Lowell in the 21st century?
We believe it is time for change for at least the following reasons:
* Government functions best when it reflects the diversity of its residents. While Lowell has been fortunate to have had many talented and well-intentioned elected officials, greater diversity in our elected bodies will bring even more perspectives to the table -- and that can only be a positive, especially in these polarized political times.
* A change from our current electoral system will give more Lowell residents a voice in their government. Over the years, a very large percentage of elected officials in Lowell have come from just one or two neighborhoods. A district-based system would ensure that other parts of the city are represented as well.
* Litigation is expensive and uncertain. If the city takes this case to trial and loses, that will cost us all as taxpayers -- and we will have change imposed upon us by a federal judge. On the other hand, if we get out in front on this issue now, we will save taxpayer dollars and can craft a solution which works best for Lowell.
Last fall, the city wisely created an Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Election Laws, which has been holding listening sessions throughout the city. While the subcommittee has not yet released official findings, it has become clear that many residents want a different electoral approach (importantly, the popular City Manager/“Plan E” form of government can be retained regardless of our electoral system). Some have suggested purely district elections while others prefer a combination of district and at-large seats but a common theme has emerged -- the time is right for constructive change.
Let’s turn the current challenge into an opportunity. Let’s modernize our electoral system for the 21st century, in a way that capitalizes on Lowell’s great strengths and puts us on a positive trajectory for the future.
Michael Gallagher is an attorney and managing partner of Gallagher & Cavanaugh LLP in Lowell.