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Court declares Virginia Beach's at-large city council election system illegal, says it disadvantages minorities

The memorandum requires the city to re-think the election system in a way that complies with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The US District Court for Eastern Virginia issued a memorandum Wednesday about Virginia Beach's process for electing its city council: the federal court ruled the current system illegally disadvantaged minorities.

The case started when two Virginia Beach residents asked the federal court to review the "at-large" voting system the city has in place for city council elections.

The plaintiffs said this system went against Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The case went to court in October of 2020, and the district court agreed.

In the ruling, District Court Judge Raymond Jackson wrote, “The at-large system for the Virginia Beach City Council denies Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians equal access to the electoral and political process."

Up until now, every person registered to vote in Virginia Beach could vote in the races for every city council district. The terms are staggered; about half the council goes up for election every two years.

That means if Districts 1, 3, and 5 were up for election in a given year, a voter who lives in District 1 could vote for a candidate in all three districts. But, the candidates for the District 1 seat would have to live in the area they want to represent.

Aside from those specific district races, Virginia Beach also had three "at-large" candidates on the Virginia Beach City Council. These representatives are not tied to a specific district; they can live in any part of the city and are elected by the entire population of the city.

It’s important to note Virginia Beach's city council and school board voting processes were already scheduled to change. On March 18, Governor Ralph Northam signed HB 2198 requiring district representatives in city council and school boards be elected by voters living in their district.

The plaintiffs, Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen, said this system diluted the impact of votes from minorities. The plaintiffs said city minorities might be able to choose candidates who better represented them, by banding together in a system where only the people who lived in a district voted for candidates representing that district.

On the Virginia Beach city website, a spokesperson wrote the city's official position on the issue:

"The City asserts that plaintiffs cannot show, under existing census data that any single minority group is sufficiently large or compact to constitute a majority within any single voting district," the website reads. "Furthermore, the City believes the plaintiffs will fail to offer competent qualitative evidence that Black, Hispanic and Asian voters in Virginia Beach are politically cohesive, which is one of mandatory criteria mentioned above."

The district court sided with Holloway and Allen and called the practice "illegal." Among nine factors, Jackson cited a history of discrimination in Virginia Beach and the city's political representation. 

Council Member At-large John Moss said he is not surprised by the ruling, given Jackson's previous rulings and remarks during the trial. He said the next step is to learn how the judge advises the City to move forward. 

"The ruling is what the ruling is," wrote Moss in an email to 13News Now. "At the appropriate time, Council will be advised of our options and Council as a body will make a decision, and provide the requisite direction." 

"One thing is certain, his ruling precludes the talk by some that there should be a referendum this fall to go to an all at-large election system like Chesapeake and then ask the General Assembly for a charter change," said Moss. "The former option is off the table."

The memorandum requires the city to re-think the election system in a way that complies with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Here are some sections from the court's written conclusion:

By a preponderance of the evidence, the Plaintiffs have demonstrated that the at-large system of elections for the Virginia Beach City Council denies Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians equal access to the electoral and political process, in contravention of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Accordingly, it is hereby DECLARED that Virginia Beach's at-large method of election is illegal and cannot be enforced in future elections.

Although six of the twelve other large cities in Virginia use either a district system or a mixed at-large district system for their city elections, with the majority elected from districts, none shares Virginia Beach's combination of at-large elections, designated seats for most positions, and staggered terms.

You can read the 135-page memorandum here:

City councilwoman Sabrina Wooten, a Black woman and whose election to the seat is referenced in the ruling, said she respects the decision. 

"Now, I believe it is time to educate the public with regard to the impact that the ruling will have on the electoral system," she said. 

City spokesperson Julie Hill said Wednesday officials "are digesting the Court’s opinion and the City Attorney will be briefing the City Council in closed session on Tuesday." 

The city's website said it was possible they would choose to appeal the decision of the US District Court.

"Because of the complexity and importance of the issues presented, regardless of the outcome in the trial court, it is anticipated that the losing party will appeal the trial court’s ruling," the website says.

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