Lowell has been transformed by refugees fleeing Cambodia and immigrants coming from Latin America and Africa. The city, which was more than 90 percent white four decades ago, is now 49 percent minority.
But the halls of power still look like they did in 1980.
The nine members of the City Council and six members of the School Committee are all white, as they have been throughout virtually all of Lowell’s history.
The lack of minority representation is not a fluke, according to a federal voting rights lawsuit filed against the city Thursday.
Rather, the lawsuit argues, it is the direct result of Lowell’s system of electing every member of the City Council and School Committee through at-large, or citywide, elections, instead of district elections that represent various parts of the city. The lawsuit points out that under a winner-take-all-system, 51 percent of the electorate can control every seat and win every election.
And the lawsuit says that is just what has happened in Lowell, where “racially polarized voting” means the city’s white residents have voted as a bloc, consistently defeating the candidates preferred by minority residents.
“Everyone’s vote is not equal in a place like Lowell,” said Oren M. Sellstrom, litigation director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which filed the lawsuit in US District Court in Boston. “Communities of color do not have equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, and that is what is fundamentally wrong.”
In the 2013 Lowell City Council election, for example, two Cambodian candidates, Vesna Nuon and Vandoeun Van Pech, were the first and second choices, respectively, of the city’s Asian-American and Hispanic voters, the lawsuit said.
But both were defeated because the city’s white majority ranked them 17th and 18th, respectively, out of 18 candidates.
Similar patterns have played out in elections for the School Committee, which has never had a minority member, even though two-thirds of the school district is black, Latino, and Asian.
The lawsuit argues that Lowell’s exclusively at-large election system dilutes the voting power of residents of color, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.
The plaintiffs, who include more than a dozen minority residents, want the city to have a district-based system where they say minorities would have a stronger chance of electing candidates to the City Council and School Committee.
Christine P. O’Connor, Lowell’s city solicitor, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying officials were still reviewing it. Mayor Edward J. Kennedy also declined to comment but pointed out that Lowell has operated under an at-large election system since 1943.
Such systems are increasingly rare in Massachusetts and nationwide.
Boston has elected both district and at-large councilors since 1981, when voting rights activists, frustrated with the lack of minority representation, successfully passed a ballot question to end the city’s exclusively at-large election system.
Springfield scrapped its at-large-only system in 2009, following a lawsuit by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Voting rights activists have also forced communities in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, and New York to drop at-large-only elections.
Some local cities, such as Haverhill and Fall River, still use at-large-only elections.
But such systems are not necessarily illegal, Sellstrom said. To be ruled discriminatory, he said, the communities must also have “racially polarized voting” and one district that could be drawn where minorities would be in the majority.
The lawsuit against Lowell claims that, because minorities lack representation in City Hall, translation services are lacking and people of color are rarely hired for city jobs.
For example, nearly 80 percent of Lowell’s police officers and more than 90 percent of the faculty and staff in Lowell’s public schools are white.
The lawsuit says residents of color have also had to struggle for their fair share of city resources.
For example, the lawsuit says, community activists had to advocate for years to get lights installed at Roberto Clemente Park in a predominantly Cambodian neighborhood, even though many other parks in the city had working lights at the time, the lawsuit says.
“We don’t seem to have a voice on the City Council, and whenever we try to express concerns that are relevant and specific to our communities, it seems we are brushed off and sort of neglected,” said Daniel K. Uk, a 22-year-old graduate of Lowell High School and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and a plaintiff in the suit.
The lawsuit says only two seats on the City Council have been won by Asian-American and Latino candidates in the last five elections, even though nearly half of Lowell’s residents were people of color during the period.
In 2014, Rady Mom, a Lowell Democrat, became the first Cambodian-American elected to the state Legislature. But Sellstrom said Mom’s district was drawn specifically to give minorities a chance at winning that seat.
At the local level, Sellstrom said, Lowell officials have repeatedly thwarted efforts to overhaul the election system for city offices. In February, for example, Councilor Rodney Elliott made a motion for the City Council to discuss changing to a mix of at-large and ward-based elections. But no one would second the motion, so it failed.
“People in power are unwilling to give it up voluntarily,” Sellstrom said.
“That’s why federal courts have to step in and mandate change.”