Conway Wants Voters’ Input on Future of Elections in Lowell
LOWELL -- With city officials and lawyers still in federal court mediation sessions over the voter-rights lawsuit, City Councilor Dave Conway is proposing that residents should have a chance to vote on the future of city elections.
Conway has filed a motion for next week’s council meeting, requesting the council approve a citywide ballot question -- which would be the city’s first nonbinding referendum since the 2017 high school vote.
The ballot question would ask voters whether they want to maintain Lowell’s at-large representation, or whether they want the city to develop a new election model.
Over the last year of the voter-rights lawsuit, some councilors have pushed a hybrid model of both ward and at-large councilors. Other councilors have been leery of a new model, wanting to keep the status quo.
Conway said the residents should have a say on this controversial issue.
“We need to let the voters weigh in,” he said Wednesday. “It’s disrespectful to not let them weigh in on a decision as important as this.”
City officials have been busy with the lawsuit, holding several executive sessions and federal court mediation sessions with the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs in the case argue that Lowell’s at-large election system discriminates against minority communities.
Thirteen Asian-American and Hispanic residents brought the voter-rights lawsuit. They argue that citywide elections have allowed the city’s majority white population to vote as a bloc and ensure white candidates gain office.
The belief is a district-based election system would give minority residents an equal opportunity to have at least one majority-minority district, and therefore increase the chances of a minority candidate gaining office.
Like with the 2017 high school vote, this ballot question would not be binding. The overwhelming majority of voters back then supported a downtown high school, and the city ended up listening to that majority and moving forward with the downtown project.
“Just like with the high school, we should let the people decide,” Conway said.
He did not offer a specific election-model change for the motion, saying he didn’t want to “muddy the waters” and make it more complicated with different proposals.
City Councilor John Leahy said residents should get to have a say on this important issue. Residents also need to get out and vote, he added.
“We need to get a legitimate gauge of how the city feels, and we can go from there,” Leahy said.
City Councilor Rodney Elliott said he supports putting this question on the ballot.
“The voice of the people of this city should be heard,” he said.
City Councilors Vesna Nuon and Edward Kennedy recently made a motion for the city’s attorneys to propose a change to the electoral system -- from an at-large system to a hybrid model of district and at-large.
The councilors, who as members of the Ad-Hoc Election Laws Subcommittee heard from residents from around the city, requested the city manager encourage the city solicitor to “engage in mediation with the plaintiffs in a good faith effort to resolve the lawsuit in a timely and reasonable fashion.” The City Council referred the motion to executive session.
The councilors stated that the overwhelming majority of residents who spoke at the City Council’s neighborhood meetings about the voter-rights lawsuit favored district representation, or a combination of district and at-large representation.
The plaintiffs have been open to a voluntary change from the city. Lowell is the only city across the state with a population over 100,000 to have a fully at-large system.
Recently, there was a feisty exchange between Elliott and Mayor Bill Samaras over the lawsuit. Elliott made a motion for the city solicitor to prepare a vote to change the election of the City Council from nine current at-large councilors to six ward and three at-large councilors.
Elliott, who said the city is going to lose the lawsuit and that it will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, was not permitted at that meeting to speak on his motion. Samaras said the issue was being handled in the courts and in executive session.
Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.