Proponents of Lowell Election Changes: System Unfair to People of Color
LOWELL -- Every two years, voters in Lowell’s 33 voting precincts choose nine people who will comprise the next City Council and six people who will comprise the next School Committee.
In 2017, Sokhary Chau placed in the top four in 11 precincts, and he finished in 10th place or worse -- in other words, in losing position -- in 17 others. David Conway did not make in the top four in a single precinct, and he lost 24 of them.
Conway won a seat on the City Council in that election. Chau did not.
That case is just one of several examples over the past two decades in which a candidate, often a person of color, was among the favorites in a large swath of the city but lost the election, an analysis by The Sun found.
A closer look at the numbers shows why. The areas where Chau fared well -- which include the most diverse parts of a city whose population is more than 50 percent non-white -- have lower voting rates than the sections of the city where Conway did best. Chau received a total of 1,402 votes from 11 precincts where he was in the top four. Conway, meanwhile, received 1,599 from just two precincts in the Belvidere neighborhood where he lives.
Conway finished fifth and sixth in these two precincts, which happen to be the whitest in the city, and yet they gave him more votes overall than Chau received from the 11 where he finished in better positions. And because all nine seats on the City Council are at-large, decided by raw citywide totals, the lower turnout from Chau’s base simply could not produce enough votes for victory.
The disparity is facing new scrutiny thanks to a voting-rights lawsuit filed against the city last year by 13 minority residents, who argue that an all at-large electoral system minimizes the power of people of color. Plaintiffs in the case call instead for seats to be divided up and selected by district, effectively guaranteeing some form of representation for each area.
There is a significant chance a district system would change the makeup of the City Council or School Committee. Historically, representation on those two boards for any group besides whites has been almost nonexistent -- in the past half-century, fewer than half a dozen non-white residents have won election, despite the city changing over that span from about 90 percent white to about 47 percent white.
“Different voices, different perspectives certainly help what we’re doing to be more inclusive, more reflective and more open,” City Councilor Vesna Nuon said. “To have this diversity of experience, diversity of ethnicities represented in the city -- that just makes it a better city.”
The disparities go beyond ethnic makeup, though. Analysis by The Sun found a sizable gap in both power and representation among different parts of the city, a trend closely related to demographic numbers.
Insiders have long viewed the Belvidere neighborhood, tucked away on the eastern edge of the city, as key to winning elections. Indeed, the two precincts that form the majority of Belvidere, 1-2 and 1-3, have the highest rates of voter turnout and the most votes cast in almost every election. They are also, according to 2010 Census figures, the whitest precincts in the city.
The area has also produced far more members of the City Council and School Committee than any other. Between 1999 and 2017, there were a combined 258 terms up for grabs on the City Council and School Committee. 140 of them, or about 46 percent, were won by candidates who at the time lived in either 1-2 or 1-3.
No other part of the city comes close to that figure. The precincts tied for the third-highest representation rate, 6-3 and 8-3, each accounted for 10 percent of all winners in the same range.
A common argument against a district system would be that under-represented areas should simply work harder to achieve higher voter turnout. But Dick Howe Jr., a former city councilor and an expert on Lowell’s political history, said that explanation overlooks key structural challenges.
For instance, even if the total population in each voting district is designed to be roughly equal, other portions of the city are home to more immigrants and children who are not eligible to vote. That leaves Belvidere, Howe said, with a built-in electoral advantage.
“The pool of people who are eligible to register to vote is much higher than in other precincts in the city, so you’re already starting way ahead, and then the people who register is much higher there, and then the people who turn out to vote is much higher, too,” he said. “It’s like a triple-enhancement effect. It’s not that the people here are more committed so they turn out to vote in higher numbers. They do, but there’s more of them to start with.”
Chau was not alone in 2017 when he lost his race despite 11 top-four finishes. In 2015, Nuon placed in the top four in 12 precincts, but did not win overall. The same is true for Armand Mercier in 2011 (with 11 top-four precincts), Daniel Rourke in 2017 (10), Paul Ratha Yem in 2015 (9), Nuon in 2013 (9), Vandoeun Van Pech in 2013 (7) and in 2011 (6).
There are two frequent denominators among that group: many of them are minorities, particularly Cambodian-Americans, and most of the areas where they succeeded are the city’s most diverse.
Those precincts are, effectively, an electoral void, where votes are often cast in clear support of a single candidate but are sucked into insignificance by the larger numbers in Belvidere. Since 2009, the precincts in that void -- all adjacent to one another right around downtown -- have selected a candidate in their top four only to watch said candidate lose the overall election on five occasions or more.
“I think that’s pretty good evidence that if there was a district that just comprised those areas, guys like Sokhary and Vesna would be on the council,” Howe said. “If you spread out (results) over the entire city, it dilutes the impact of the people who vote in that area.”
The effects ripple out to future elections, too, as those running for office pay less attention to neighborhoods with fewer votes up for grabs and therefore make it more difficult for residents to get engaged.
Lowell’s current model for choosing municipal leaders dates back to 1942, when voters approved a Type E form of government with a City Council and a city manager. At first, Howe said, proportional representation, which weights candidates based on how they are ranked, similar to that in place in Cambridge was used.
But in 1955, a referendum changed the model to what is in place today. Despite other attempts to change Lowell’s charter, the at-large system had never been the subject of serious debate until May 2017, when the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit.
Prompted by the case, the system is facing new scrutiny from within. Two months after the lawsuit, the City Council convened an ad-hoc subcommittee to examine the issue. In December, the committee recommended moving to a hybrid model with six seats on the council chosen by districts and three chosen by at-large vote totals, something that City Councilor Rodney Elliott had suggested earlier. Nuon estimated recently that 80 percent of residents he met through public meetings on the topic argued in favor of a district or hybrid election model.
Plaintiffs and city officials are still in mediation over the lawsuit. City Solicitor Christine O’Connor declined to comment on the status of the talks, calling them confidential. She said if elected leaders wanted to change the system, a charter commission or a home-rule petition from the Legislature could be sought.
“There are different steps that could be taken to effectuate a change,” O’Connor said.
Nuon also declined to share specific details of the mediation beyond saying it “looks like we’re on the right path.” He is hopeful, though, that a resolution will come soon.
“I want to (see) a headline, one that says the plaintiffs praise the city for its openness to make them feel a part of the system,” he said. “I don’t want a headline that says the court ordered the city to do x, y, z. That looks bad for our city. Not only that, but it costs us money the longer you have this dance in court. In the event that we did not prevail as a city, meaning win the case, it’s going to cost us a lot of money.”