As post-pandemic life marches on, the local political struggles interrupted by COVID-19 beckon loud and clear. In Haverhill, that means the city’s all-white City Council must prioritize changing the system used for municipal representation — the way they were voted into office in the first place: via an all “at-large” electoral system.
That’s what a group of advocates is asking Mayor James Fiorentini and the Haverhill City Council to do in a demand letter, shared with Globe Opinion, that lays out the ways in which Haverhill could be susceptible to legal liability under the federal Voting Rights Act if it doesn’t move away from the anachronistic all-at-large structure for both the city council and the school committee. It’s an overdue move for Haverhill.
“There was a lot of momentum towards change, then the pandemic struck,” said Oren Sellstrom. Sellstrom is the litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, which signed the demand letter along with the Latino Coalition of Haverhill, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed in 2018. “What we want to say with this letter is that the time is now to restart that discussion and take concrete steps towards change. . . . and bring Haverhill in line with virtually every other city in Massachusetts,” Sellstrom said in an interview.
Boston changed its city council to include district-based representation in 1981. And today, seven of Boston’s 13 councilors are people of color. In Haverhill, the City Council itself must approve the change to its electoral system. In this city of nearly 65,000 in the Merrimack Valley, communities of color account for roughly 30 percent of the population; and nearly 1 in 4 residents is Latino. The diversity in Haverhill’s public schools is more striking: Half the student population is of color and 40 percent of them Latino. And yet, all city councilors and School Committee members are white.
“Courts have consistently found that when all of a public body’s seats are elected city-wide, that can dilute the vote of communities of color, allowing a majority voting bloc to win 100% of the seats in 100% of the elections and depriving communities of color of equal voting opportunity,” the demand letter sent to Haverhill officials read. The letter quoted the courts saying that such a system has “an obvious potential to submerge the electoral power of even a substantial and cohesive minority bloc.”
Without local representation on the City Council, issues that matter to the local Latino population become harder to elevate. “We just finished doing a small-business survey,” said Manuel Matias, a member of Haverhill’s Latino Coalition, in an interview. “It was clear to us that our small businesses are being left behind. A lot of our businesses had no resources or couldn’t apply for resources, such as PPP loans, due to lack of knowledge.”
Noemi Custodia-Lora, another member of the coalition, said that it has been pushing to increase the number of Latino full-time teachers and staff at the school district. “This is something that’s still lacking,” she said. “Some of us, we get organized, we bring things to the attention of officials, we present at School Committee meetings, and it just stays there. If we were to have representation, we feel like there would be more meaningful conversations.”
And impact, as well. “We’ve learned from almost two decades of work that Gateway Cities where all segments of the community are represented in government thrive while those led by just one segment of the community flounder,” said Juana Matias, chief operating officer at MassINC, a local think tank that, in a 2019 report, highlighted the lack of representation of people of color in local governments. Indeed, an often-cited study that analyzed data from California found that increased representation of nonwhite candidates in city council seats can reduce racial disparities in housing prices.
Haverhill’s elected officials should act preemptively before a legal challenge under the Voting Rights Act is filed — as happened in Lowell and Worcester. “Lowell has changed as a result of our consent decree and now is heading into November 2021, [which will be] their first elections under the new district system,” said Sellstrom. Litigation could take long and be very costly for taxpayers; ultimately, it should be unnecessary to force change. It’s why Everett embarked on the change voluntarily.
The timing is particularly relevant, as the Census 2020 data is about to be released. Haverhill, you’re next: Time’s up to be more inclusive in municipal government and strengthen the vote of communities of color.