Proposed Change Civil Rights Group Encourages City to De-Construct Citywide Voting

A group of Civil Rights lawyers are encouraging the City and the Council, on behalf of local Everett groups, to eliminate citywide voting for district Council and School Committee seats.

Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston (LCR) sent a letter to the City on Sept. 24 encouraging it to take action on a recent proposal by the Council to get rid of the practice, which was instituted a few years back under the new City Charter. At the Sept. 16 Council meeting, several councilors signed on to the proposed change, and LCR said they hope the City acts voluntarily because they said it is a well-documented Voting Rights violation in that it dilutes the vote of communities of color.

“Obviously, it behooves the Cities to move voluntarily before they are involved in a federal Voting Rights lawsuit,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for LCR. “It is something where we always encourage public entities to act voluntarily…However, if this is something the City will delay or not want to change, that’s what federal courts exist for.”

Any changes would not have any impact on the upcoming City Election on Nov. 5, but would be in place after a lengthy City Charter change process.

LCR has just recently concluded a long and protracted case with the City of Lowell about their voting system, which was much the same as Everett’s in that it was a city-wide vote. After many years of costly legal fighting, Lowell was compelled by the courts to change their system in May 2019.

That case, Sellstrom said, drew the attention of activists in Everett – who noted that the same thing was in place here. After looking at it, LCR decided to make their intentions known this week – compelling the City to act voluntarily before any Voting Rights lawsuit is considered.

The basis of such cases revolves around the notion that a citywide vote dilutes the vote of communities of color – not allowing residents of a district more heavily populated by people of color to be elected. This, they said, can lead to issues in communities of color to be ignored or misunderstood. LCR said they believe there is strong evidence this is happening in Everett.

“There is strong evidence this is what is occurring in Everett,” read the letter. “The City is extremely diverse – and becoming more so with each successive year. Recent Census figures show that communities of color account for over 40 percent of the population…By contrast, the City’s elected bodies do not remotely reflect this diversity. Of the hundreds of officials elected to the City Council and School Committee, only a miniscule number have been persons of color.”

The letter stated that Census figures show 23 percent of the population is Latino, and 19 percent is black. In the Everett Public Schools, approximately 75 percent are of color – with 54 percent Latino. The letter stated that of 650 elected officials in the City’s history, only four have been people of color.

LCR alleged that voting patterns in Everett show that were candidates of color allowed to run in wards or districts as opposed to citywide, such candidates would win election in Everett.

“This in turn would enhance diversity on Everett’s elected bodies and help ensure an accountability and responsiveness to Everett’s communities of color that is currently lacking,” the letter stated.

Sellstrom said that citywide voting allows candidates in a district to win the vote of their neighbors, but lose due to a larger voting block outside the neighborhood.

“It has the potential to dilute communities of color,” he said. “If there is a majority voting block outside the district that can overwhelm the vote of those in the district, they can win 100 percent of the seats in 100 percent of the elections.”

LCR said the letter was to encourage the City to move forward with the recent proposal to dismantle the citywide voting, but they are prepared to act if need be.

“A true, ward-based system would eliminate the vote dilution problem inherent in Everett’s current electoral system,” read the letter. “Over time, a more fair and equitable system would be expected to increase the diversity of Everett’s elected bodies and the responsiveness of these bodies to the City’s communities of color, thereby strengthening the City as a whole.”

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