Joe Sherlock announced his candidacy for the Haverhill City Council last year on a special date for him: the 40th anniversary of his mom’s arrival to the Merrimack Valley from her native Colombia. Sherlock, then 25, was one of 16 candidates running for nine at-large seats on the council, which is an all-white electoral body in a city where one in five residents is Latino. That racial discrepancy is why Sherlock launched his campaign on an unusual policy platform: Aside from focusing on making the city more affordable, he ran on getting rid of the all at-large, or citywide, structure of the city council that Haverhill shares with too many other city councils and school committees in Massachusetts.
“Haverhill is a big city, with densely populated areas and also parts that look like rural Vermont," said Sherlock. “You can talk to somebody in the Mt. Washington neighborhood, where most of the Latino population lives, and they don’t have anyone that lives in their ward on the council. The needs of those communities are different, and ward council seats are a way to make sure that representation is met.”
Sherlock lost, but his candidacy elevated a much-needed conversation about fair representation in the Gateway City of 64,000 residents. The all at-large method in local elections is an anachronism that can potentially deny newer but growing communities of color of equal access to municipal political representation. Haverhill and other places in Massachusetts that still cling to the at-large system should ditch it in favor of a hybrid that combines at-large and ward seats.
The best argument for the at-large system is that it forces councilors to look out for the whole city instead of just tending to the parochial interests of their neighborhood. Boston dropped its purely at-large City Council election system decades ago in favor of a hybrid system. It manages to strike a good balance, giving more voice to neighborhoods without losing a citywide focus.
That model makes sense for cities with elected school committees as well. “If there would be a neighborhood or ward representative in the school committee, you’d have people fighting for every school in the city with a higher sense of urgency,” said Sherlock. Currently, all members of Haverhill’s school committee are white, while the student population in the public schools is nearly 40 percent Latino.
Research shows that increased representation of people of color in local governments leads to better outcomes for minority residents. Adding district or ward seats to the city council and school committee lowers the barriers for people of color to run for those offices.
“There aren’t a lot of women who run either,” said Sherlock. “It’s hard to make the progress that you need covering the whole city as a candidate running with a full-time job. Had I been running in a ward system, it would have been easier to knock on a bigger proportion of those doors and reach a larger proportion of my immediate community.”
A recent local example should push Haverhill to act now. In 2017, a group of residents of color filed a federal voting rights lawsuit against Lowell arguing that the city’s use of citywide at-large elections for all seats on its city council and school committee illegally dilutes the voting power of minority voters in violation of federal law. Despite communities of color accounting for nearly half of Lowell’s population — with Asian-Americans and Latinos together making up 41 percent — the nine members of the city council and six members of the school committee had all been white throughout virtually all of the city’s history. After two years of litigation, the parties settled, and the city agreed to pursue changes to its electoral system. Starting next year, Lowell will use a hybrid system of district and at-large seats to elect members of the two local governing bodies.
“In addition to good policy reasons to take the shift, there are also legal reasons why jurisdictions have to look closely about whether their current system is diluting the vote of communities of color,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights. Sellstrom represented the Lowell plaintiffs and recently participated in a Haverhill public forum to explore changes to the city’s form of government. In Lowell, Sellstrom said, “There had been voluntary pushes to change before the lawsuit was filed that the city essentially ignored.”
Fall River has an at-large council; Lynn, New Bedford, and Worcester are among the cities that have at-large school committees. It’s encouraging that Haverhill is taking a proactive approach, discussing a change to the all at-large system, and that Mayor James Fiorentini supports reform. Cities should not wait for legal action to ditch a system that disenfranchises a growing share of their communities.
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