Voting Rights Lawsuit Filed Against Lowell, Mass.; Minority Residents Allege City’s At-Large Electoral System Unlawfully Dilutes Their Vote

In The News
May 18, 2017

Ropes & Gray and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights today filed a federal voting rights lawsuit against the city of Lowell, Mass. alleging that the city’s municipal election system discriminates against minorities. The firm’s litigation team represents a diverse coalition of Asian-American and Hispanic/Latino residents of Lowell.

According to the lawsuit, the use of citywide at-large elections for all seats on the Lowell City Council and Lowell School Committee dilutes the voting power of minority voters in Lowell, violating the federal Voting Rights Act, as well as the United States Constitution.

Although the city is approximately 49 percent minority, both its nine-member City Council and its six-member School Committee are all-white and have been so for virtually all of Lowell’s history.

“The right to vote—and the principle that everyone’s vote should count equally—is at the very core of our democracy,” said Oren M. Sellstrom of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “Lowell’s current electoral system violates that fundamental right.”

Sellstrom noted that in an at-large winner-take-all system such as Lowell’s, 51 percent of the electorate can control all the seats and win every election.

“Many members of the Lowell community have for years expressed concern that the city’s election system is not fair,” said business & securities litigation partner Robert Jones, who is leading a team of attorneys representing the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis. “The plaintiffs in this suit are Lowell residents whose intention is to make sure that voters of all backgrounds are properly represented.”

The complaint filed today describes the city’s “racially polarized voting,” whereby the predominately white voting bloc consistently defeats the candidates preferred by minority communities.

The complaint cites the example of the 2013 City Council election, which included two Cambodian-American candidates—Vesna Nuon and Vandoeun Van Pech. These candidates were favored by both Asian-American and Hispanic/Latino voters above all other candidates, ranking as these voters’ first and second choice candidates, respectively. In contrast, they were the seventeenth and eighteenth choices (out of eighteen candidates) among the predominantly white majority voting bloc. As a result, neither won a seat. Similar voting patterns exist in School Committee elections, according to the lawsuit.

Chanmony Huot, a lifelong Lowell resident of Cambodian descent and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said that “the lack of diversity in Lowell municipal government harms the City’s minority communities and makes City government less responsive to our needs.” Asian-Americans account for approximately 22 percent of Lowell’s population, including one of the largest Cambodian-American communities in the United States.

Vladimir Saldaña, a plaintiff from Lowell’s Hispanic/Latino community, echoed this sentiment, stating that “all voters in Lowell should have an equal say at the ballot box. But the way it is now, our elected officials are not accountable to communities of color.” He cited lack of outreach to minority communities by the City on critical municipal issues, including sanctuary city protections and re-locating the high school. He added that “the goal of this lawsuit is to ensure that all residents of Lowell, in all of our neighborhoods, are fully represented in city government.”

Lowell is one of the only larger cities in Massachusetts to exclusively use an at-large plurality municipal electoral system. Most other cities and towns in the Commonwealth have moved to a system that includes at least some district-based seats, to ensure greater diversity and neighborhood representation.

The lawsuit asserts that judicial intervention is needed to bring the city into compliance with federal law to protect the rights of Lowell’s large and growing minority population. The city has failed to change the election system voluntarily, despite recent efforts by Lowell residents.

The lawsuit is available here as are translations in Spanish and Khmer.

In addition to Robert Jones, Ropes & Gray’s litigation team includes associates Scott Taylor and Daniel Fine.