Lawyers for Civil Rights and Ropes & Gray Settle Federal Voting Rights Act Case Against Lowell, Mass.

In The News
May 29, 2019

The diverse coalition of Latino and Asian-American voters that filed a groundbreaking federal voting rights suit against the City of Lowell alleging that the municipal election system illegally dilutes the vote of communities of color announced today that the parties have reached a favorable resolution to the lawsuit. If approved by the Court, the agreement will result in a landmark Consent Decree requiring Lowell to change its municipal electoral system to ensure a fairer and more equitable election process that empowers voters of all backgrounds. The agreement has been jointly submitted for approval to the federal court.

The plaintiffs are represented by Lawyers for Civil Rights and by Ropes & Gray, working on a pro bono basis. Filed in 2017, the lawsuit alleged that the City’s current use of citywide at-large plurality elections for all seats on the Lowell City Council and Lowell School Committee illegally dilutes the voting power of minority voters in Lowell, violating the federal Voting Rights Act, as well as the U.S. Constitution. Although communities of color account for approximately 49% of Lowell’s population, its nine-member City Council and its six-member School Committee have had virtually no minority representation throughout all of Lowell’s history.

Key elements of today’s agreement include:

  • Starting with the 2021 municipal elections, Lowell will be barred from utilizing its current at-large electoral system.
  • That system will be replaced by an alternative electoral system that the parties agree is compliant with the federal Voting Rights Act. The Consent Decree outlines six possible alternatives that Lowell may adopt, including a purely district-based system, several “hybrid” options that combine district and at-large seats, and at-large ranked-choice voting.
  • Lowell will select one of the agreed-upon options over the coming months through a public process that will allow for community input and resident involvement. This will be accompanied by a comprehensive public education and outreach campaign conducted in multiple languages.

“Today’s agreement is a great victory for Lowell’s communities of color, and for all of Lowell’s residents,” said Oren M. Sellstrom, Litigation Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “It requires the City to change to an electoral system that ensures equal voting opportunity for all.” Sellstrom added that all of the possible alternative electoral systems outlined in the Consent Decree eliminate the vote dilution problem of the current system.

“Our clients are members of the Lowell community who entered into this lawsuit with the intention to ensure that voters of all backgrounds are fairly and properly represented in their city,” said Ropes & Gray litigation partner Robert Jones. “We are pleased that the agreement achieves this in a way that is favorable to all parties involved.”

“Lowell’s communities of color and their allies banded together to seek a more fair electoral system,” said Denisse Collazo, one of the Latino plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “This settlement puts our City on the right track for the future.”

“One of Lowell’s great strengths is its diversity,” stated Tooch Van, one of the Asian-American plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “Today’s agreement will help ensure that this diversity is reflected in our elected bodies as well. That will make our City stronger.”

Lowell has been one of the only larger cities in Massachusetts to use an exclusively 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 or alternative voting procedures such as ranked-choice voting, to ensure greater diversity and neighborhood representation.

The Consent Decree is subject to the approval of Magistrate Judge Donald L. Cabell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts and, if approved, would bring the case to a favorable end. The case is Huot v. City of Lowell, 17-CV-10895 (D. Mass. 2017).

Led by Mr. Jones, Ropes & Gray’s litigation team also includes IP litigation associate Scott Taylor and litigation & enforcement associate Daniel Fine. Lawyers for Civil Rights is working closely with Ropes & Gray on this landmark voting rights matter.

The Consent Decree can be found here.

A Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document is available in English, Khmer, and Spanish.