A Lawsuit Challenged Lowell's Voting System. 2 Years Later, The City Agreed To Change It

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Voters fill the booths at a polling station in Watertown, Mass. in 2018. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Voters fill the booths at a polling station in Watertown, Mass. in 2018. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Lowell will likely have a new electoral system by the end of the year.

The city reached an agreement Wednesday with minority voters who sued in 2017, arguing that the city's at-large electoral system violated their voting rights.

The coalition of Asian American, Hispanic and Latino community members claimed even though their communities make up about 41% of Lowell's population, the city's electoral system dilutes their votes.

The result, the plaintiffs said, is a city council and school committee that are overwhelmingly white.

Oren Sellstrom, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights who represented the plaintiffs, said the plaintiffs took issue with the fact that all seats on those governance bodies were considered "at-large" — meaning all voters get to vote for every seat.

"What an at-large electoral system essentially does is allows for a majority voting bloc of 51% to control 100% of the seats in 100% of the elections," Sellstrom said.

The agreement between the city and the plaintiffs outlined several new electoral options acceptable to both parties, including a ranked-choice voting option; a district-seat system; and even a hybrid option comprised of both district and at-large seats.

Lowell Mayor William Samaras described the deal as a victory for both sides, acknowledging also that his feelings on the matter had evolved in the two years since the suit was filed. At that time, he was also a member of the city council.

"Did I think it was needed in Lowell? Not necessarily," he said. "But, when something like that happens, you take a better look at what you have."

After repeatedly coming to the mediation table, Samaras said he gained insight into how the city can make its electoral system more representative.

"What better ways can we serve the community, and what better ways can we ensure that not just the minority community — but the entire community — has a voice in their government," he said.

If the deal is accepted by the federal court, voters will choose their new electoral system in Lowell's municipal election in November.

This segment aired on May 30, 2019.


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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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