Lowell elections deny minorities a voice in local legislatures
Under peculiar election system, city council, school committee are all-white
A group of Asian-American and Latino residents in Lowell are taking aim at a local political system that they say has silenced their and other minorities’ voices. For years, the school committee and city council have been almost entirely white — a representation disproportionate with the 49 percent share of people of color in the city’s population. They say that as a result, minorities are often left out of decision-making conversations in city development, lose out on investments in community assets and have needs, such as translation services and immigrant protection legislation, that go unmet.
According to the group of minority residents, who are suing for change in a federal lawsuit, the whiteness of the government entities is a result of Lowell’s unusual election system.
Unlike other cities of its size, Lowell’s councilors and committee members are all “at-large” — that is, selected through a citywide election as opposed to residents of any particular district. As such, non-Latino whites, who comprise the largest sector of the voting age population by race and tend to vote as one bloc, can beat out candidates favored by minority voters, according to the plaintiffs’ complaint.
Votes without impact
From 2007 to 2015, no person of color has served on the six-person school committee and only twice has a person of color held one of the nine city council seats, say attorneys from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice and Ropes & Gray LLC, who are representing the plaintiffs. During those years, Lowell was only 51 percent white by population, but in 2015 had a 97 percent white council and school committee.
In 2013, two Cambodian-American city council candidates were favored by minority communities: Vesna Nuon and Vandoeun Van Pech ranked as the first and second choice among Latino and Asian voters. But they did not have similar traction among white voters and in the citywide election received the last and second-to-last place out of all candidates. An entirely white council was elected.
All at-large system
Plaintiffs request that the city council and school committee include at least one member elected from a district in which the voting age population and total population is majority Asian-American and Latino. Most municipalities, including Boston, include a number of district-based seats along with any at-large positions on their city council. Boston’s school committee no longer is an elected body.
The Lowell city solicitor did not respond to request for comment by Banner press deadlines. However, CommonWealth Magazine states that previously, officials have said avoidance of districts allows the city to avoid the distraction of narrow concerns and better support economic development.
No seat, no attention
Lack of representation of a non-white perspective in government has led to lack of resources and opportunities in minority communities, says plaintiff Chanmony Huot, who spoke to the Banner. Huot is a technical account manager, lifelong resident of Lowell and a member of the city’s large Cambodian-American population.
“If you take a drive through ‘Cambodia town’ you can see that it’s a series of small Cambodian businesses, and you can see there’s been a lack of funds sent there,” Huot said. “When you look around some other neighborhoods, you see that they’ve gotten resources sent to them. It looks like they’re well-off compared to Cambodia town.”
City parks in minority communities historically have received less funding and fewer amenities than those in other neighborhoods, in one instance resulting in the Roberto Clemente Park, located in a predominately-Cambodian neighborhood, going without functioning lights for several years, while other parks in the city had functional lighting, according to the complaint.
Plaintiffs also say that some issues that are of greater priority to minority communities receive lessened attention among government bodies that do not have members who share the communities’ points of view. They point to the city council’s rejection and alleged only minor amount of debate, on a petition to enact a Trust Ordinance that would instruct police not to cooperate with federal requests to detain individuals based solely on their immigration statuses.
Compared to their share of the population, minorities are underrepresented in jobs on the Lowell Police Department and in Lowell Public Schools, the complaint states. While non-white students are the majority of the public school population, they experience greater achievement gaps and disparities in discipline, states the complaint.
Access to information also is critically lacking, plaintiffs say. Over the past decade, election observers from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the U.S. Department of Justice found several instances of insufficient provision of non-English language interpretation services. This included insufficient numbers of translators and lacking information in Khmer, a major language among the Cambodian community in the 2005 election; failure to make voters aware of the availability of foreign language interpreters in 2008 and 2014; and failure to post translated signs in 2012. In 2004, minority voters whose names did not appear on rolls were in some instances not informed of their right to cast a provisional ballot, and in 2014, 24 percent of Khmer-speaking voters polled by Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund said lack of language assistance caused them to experience difficulty voting.
Outside of elections, many in the minority community feel they are not included in the flow of information to constituents.
“A lot of people in minority communities are not aware of [city council] meeting times and a lot of minorities may be working second or third shift and so are not able to attend.” Huot said. “ They don’t know where to find recordings of these meetings.”
According to the complaint, city council and school committee meetings do not routinely provide translation services.
Such tensions again are revealing themselves in an ongoing debate over plans for Lowell High School, with residents to decide whether to renovate it and keep it in its current downtown location near minority and low-income neighborhoods or construct a new high school in a whiter neighborhood. According to the complaint, while the majority of students are minorities, information was lacking in Khmer and Spanish, and many minority community members were engaged in informational meetings much later than white residents.
“Forums were finally set up, late in the process, months if not years after similar information was known in majority white neighborhoods,” states the complaint.
The at-large voting system was implemented in 1957, via a citywide referendum. Oren Sellstrom of the Lawyers’ Committee told the Banner that the proponents advocated for the system with the claim that it would limit the political power of minority residents, who at the time were primarily French, Greek, Irish, Polish, Syrians, Armenians and Lithuanians.
“[The referendum had] the explicit purpose of limiting the minority vote,” Sellstrom said. “That was the stated purpose behind the move to an at-large system.”
An attempt in previous years to change the system via a motion in city council was defeated, turning eyes now to lawsuit as a more promising strategy.