In Everett today, white, non-Hispanic residents make up less than 44 percent of the population, but they dominate city government. Seventy-five percent of the elected councilors and school committee members are white.
That’s no accident, critics say; it’s a natural outgrowth of the city’s electoral system.
Everett is one of several cities in Massachusetts where all local officials are elected at-large, and none by individual wards or districts. For years, civil rights specialists have called that a recipe for exclusion. White residents, even as a minority, often vote as a bloc and drown out the voices of Black and brown voters. Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit legal organization, recently put Everett councilors on notice that they’re vulnerable to a challenge under the Voting Rights Act.
“There’s no shot against anybody because they’re a white man or a white woman. We are violating the federal Voting Rights Act,” Everett City Councilor Gerly Adrien, the first Black woman to serve on the council, warned her colleagues at a December council meeting.
As the nation grapples with racial disparities and tumultuous battles over voting rights, a handful of communities in Massachusetts retain these kinds of electoral systems that critics say can be discriminatory. And while they’re not the only communities where people of color are left out of leadership, the cities stand out for their disproportionate representation.
In Haverhill, for instance, which has a similar all-at-large voting method, Latinos comprise an estimated 23 percent of the population, but they hold no elected positions in municipal government. White, non-Hispanic residents, who make up less than three-quarters of the population of Haverhill, hold 100 percent of the elected positions governing it.
More than 28 percent of Everett residents are Latino, over 16 percent are Black, and over 8 percent are Asian, according to census estimates. Yet until last year, the Everett City Council had never included a Black woman, a Latina, or an Asian American.
Everett councilors — who have drawn unfavorable attention by publicly sparring with Adrien — decided last month to seek a charter change to create ward representation and to avert an anticipated legal challenge from Lawyers for Civil Rights. The same group successfully championed a 2017 federal voting rights lawsuit in Lowell by Asian and Latino voters, demonstrating that their voting power was being diluted by a system that used at-large voting to elect all city councilors and school committee members.
White residents, who still made up a slight majority of Lowell at the time, were voting as a bloc for different candidates than the ones chosen by the voters of color, and with a winner-take-all system they claimed every seat, every time. Few people of color had ever broken into city government and all 15 city council and school committee seats were then held by white officials, most of whom lived in the same majority-white neighborhood.
“The electoral system was the cause of the inequity,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights.
Lowell fought the premise for two years before settling in 2019. By consent decree, Lowell is now working to reshape its electoral system into wards for the council and school committee elections in the fall, using a combination of district and at-large representation.
The Lowell City Council’s reluctance to change the system on its own “shows that there are people in positions of power who like the system the way it is,” said Sellstrom. “And that prefer the status quo even though that results in elected bodies that look nothing like the communities they purport to represent.”
Changing boundaries or circumstances can be inherently threatening, though, to any local official with an established political base.
“In fairness to the councilors, we’re asking them to do something really extraordinary, which is to put their own future on the line,” said Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini, of his proposal to switch to ward representation in his city. “Change, when it affects you, is hard.”
Fiorentini saw that play out in Boston, which changed its charter in 1981 from all-at-large council representation to its current nine district councilors and four selected at-large. At the time, he worked for a city councilor who lost his seat. (Today, seven of 13 councilors are people of color.)
Still, Fiorentini, a longtime mayor and former city councilor in Haverhill, last year asked the City Council to create ward representation. The effort failed, and hopes of launching another campaign to promote it have been postponed by the pandemic.
State Representative Andy Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat who plans to spearhead the effort, tells voters that a ward system ensures representation for every neighborhood.
“And if you ever decide to run for office this makes it much more feasible that you could knock on all the doors in your neighborhood and win a seat — as opposed to trying to do everything citywide,” he said.
Other cities’ leadership has been transformed after advocates pushed for an overhaul of the at-large system. Eight of 13 Springfield city councilors are Black or Latino, like nearly two-thirds of residents.
In Chelsea, only one Latina had ever been elected to the school committee when ward positions were created in 2003 to avert a potential lawsuit by the US Department of Justice. Today, seven of nine members are Latino, one is Black, and one is white.
“It took many years to do. It wasn’t an easy feat,” said Chelsea School Committee Chairwoman Kelly Garcia. “But I will say it has been the most rewarding change for our city.”
Everett city councilors had also initially rejected a proposal to change to ward representation.
Everett’s 11-member council is unique in that it does include six “ward councilors,” who live in each of the city’s six wards, as well as five at-large members. Yet all 11 councilors are elected across a city of more than 46,000 people — allowing a candidate who loses their own ward to win the ward council seat.
“It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. A guy that gets the most votes in a ward should be the councilman,” Councilor Wayne Matewsky said at a December council meeting.
Yet ironically, that’s how Stephanie Martins, the first Latina elected to Everett City Council, won a ward seat in 2019. The opposite had happened when she ran unsuccessfully in 2017; that time, she won her ward, but didn’t win citywide.
“I personally have been on both sides of it,” Martins said. She ultimately voted for the change, saying the current citywide campaign creates a steep hurdle for a first-time candidate.
“As a new person coming in for the first time, it’s a big deal because you need more volunteers, more funding, more walking, more signs,” said Martins. “You’re covering the whole city.”
Other Everett city councilors questioned whether the city was truly comparable to Lowell, where Asian American and Latino voters were able to establish that they would make up a majority of voters in certain neighborhoods, if districts were drawn to allow that.
“Where are those pockets of people?” Everett City Councilor John F. Hanlon asked at the December meeting, noting that he sees Haitians, Italians, Irish, and Latinos all over the city.
Sellstrom, of the Lawyers Committee, said an initial analysis suggested that Everett, where councilors ultimately agreed to propose the change in the charter, could draw majority-minority districts.
That’s likely not the case in Haverhill, said Fiorentini, but he favors ward representation as better suited to meeting constituents’ needs.
“I’ve always looked upon ward councilors as a means of getting neighborhood representation for potholes,” he said.
Vargas acknowledges his own unlikely success in politics could be an argument against change: He became Haverhill’s first elected official of color when he won his first campaign for City Council at 22. But he’s still the only elected official of color.
“I would say the system is inherently flawed and we have to find a way to make sure that everyone can compete,” Vargas said.
Sellstrom said that while select candidates may find success, “the question is whether or not equal opportunity exists across the board.”
“To truly sustain that diversity and equal voting opportunity over time,” he said, “it’s necessary to have a change in the system itself.”