Given the striking demographic trends and immigration patterns that continue to change the face of Eastern Massachusetts, it’s very likely that Lowell will become a majority-minority city by the next census count. As of last year, the non-Hispanic white population stood at 49.1 percent, while the two largest minority groups — Hispanics and Asians — accounted for 41.3 percent of the city’s residents combined.
But the faces of Lowell’s elected officials — particularly in the City Council and the School Committee — look much the same as they did 50 years ago. That’s why Lawyers for Civil Rights, on behalf of a diverse group of Lowell residents, filed a federal lawsuit two years ago alleging that the city’s form of government and electoral system discriminates against Asians and Latinos. Now Lowell has agreed to change its voting process, in a landmark settlement that was approved by a federal court on Thursday.
The agreement represents a major victory for minorities, and a great opportunity for Lowell to reimagine its municipal elections. And as it does, the city has options that other Massachusetts cities never dreamed of when they overhauled their own election systems.
Lowell’s current system uses at-large elections to pick its city councilors and school committee members every two years. There are no districts: Every voter in the city gets the same ballot and can select nine candidates for the city council and six for the school committee. The nine or six candidates chosen on most of those ballots are elected. Such an electoral method, according to the lawsuit, filed in 2017, dilutes the vote of Asians and Latinos in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Plaintiffs claimed that 51 percent of the electorate win every election and thus control 100 percent of the seats. The complaint described a consistent pattern in the city of “racially polarized voting,” where a predominantly white voting bloc defeats the candidates favored by minorities. For instance, two-thirds of Lowell’s students are black, Latino, or Asian but not until 2017 was a minority candidate elected to the school committee.
The settlement instructs the city council to adopt a new electoral system no later than December, after an extensive period of public comment and education. Then Lowell must implement the new system in time for the 2021 municipal elections. The agreement offers four specific choices of electoral systems, all of which would empower Latino and Asian voters and strengthen democracy.
One choice is to switch to a nine-district system of representation, with the requirement that at least two of the new districts be majority-minority. Another alternative is a hybrid of at-large and district seats, similar to the one in Boston. A third option is to implement ranked-choice voting, a system where residents rank candidates by their order of preference. The fourth choice is a combination of all of the above.
Boston, Lawrence, and Springfield have gone through this challenge before. Pushed by federal legal action, each city scrapped its electoral system and now their city governments look much more diverse and representative of the communities they serve.
What’s different about the Lowell settlement is that the city has an opportunity to enact ranked-choice voting, an electoral system that’s gaining momentum as a more democratic and just way to vote. Cambridge, a city similar in size to Lowell, already uses ranked-choice voting for municipal elections. The ranked-choice system eliminates the possibility of a candidate who lacks a widespread support winning. If Lowell opted to create city council districts, for instance, it could fill the seats in a ranked-choice vote.
Lowell city leaders deserve credit for avoiding costly and time-consuming litigation by settling. They now have the chance to get it right and give all residents the voice they deserve in city government.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial inaccurately said no minority candidates have been elected to the Lowell school committee. An Asian-American committee member, Dominik Lay, was elected to the committee in 2017.