As Lowell prepares to create new electoral districts to abide by a 2019 federal court settlement, residents of color have a chance to help shape the future voting map.
Three community organizations and Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights are partnering to involve the city’s Asian American, Latinx, and other communities of color in the districting process the city will be undertaking in advance of the 2021 city elections.
“A major change is coming to the city, brought about by the advocacy of people of color. And now through this hands-on democracy at its best, people can concretely engage in creating this electoral system that will govern Lowell for years to come,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights.
Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, Latinx Community Center for Empowerment, Lowell Alliance, and Lawyers for Civil Rights plan to use multilingual written materials and videos to educate residents and seek their ideas on how to draw the lines for the new City Council and School Committee district seats.
“This is an amazing opportunity, to have voices from the community be part of the process of determining what the city is going to look like in the future and how it can truly celebrate its diversity,” said Sovanna Pouv, executive director of Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.
The settlement resolved a federal lawsuit alleging that Lowell’s electoral system violates the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the vote of communities of color, according to Sellstrom, who with pro bono attorneys from the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray represented the nine Cambodian-American and Latinx plaintiffs.
Under the current system, in place since 1957, the nine city councilors and six elected School Committee members all run at large, which the suit claims makes it difficult for candidates of color to be elected.
The plaintiffs said that Lowell’s Asian American and Latinx communities combined composed 41 percent of the city’s population, and minorities overall nearly 50 percent, based on US Census data at the time the suit was filed in 2017. But the suit said the council and School Committee have been virtually all white for most of Lowell’s history.
“What can happen in an at large system is that 51 percent of the electorate can control 100 percent of the seats,” Sellstrom said.
In 2017, there were no people of color on the council or the School Committee. Today there are two on the council — both Cambodian-Americans — and none on the school board.
Under the new system Lowell is implementing to comply with the settlement, the council will grow to 11 members, eight elected from districts and three at large. Two of the districts must be “majority-minority,” meaning areas where more than 50 percent of the voting-age population is either Asian American or Latinx.
Four of the School Committee members will be elected from districts, one of which must be majority-minority. Two seats will remain at large. The mayor — who is elected by councilors from among their ranks — will remain chair of the council and school board.
The city adopted the new system after voters last November endorsed it over another proposed plan for complying with the settlement. An independent expert will draw the new district lines.
“This is a really exciting moment for communities that have not been represented at the city level to start having that representation,” said Diego Leonardo, president of Latinx Community Center for Empowerment.
Leonardo said residents of color can play an invaluable role in the drawing of district lines because they have an intimate knowledge of the geography of their neighborhoods.
“We want to preserve neighborhoods as much as possible,” he said. “We need input from the people to ensure the districting allows for that.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.