VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — While Virginia Beach voters will still elect city council and school board members differently than they have in the past, an appeals court has overturned a decision finding the former system illegal.
In an 18-page opinion handed down Wednesday, two judges of a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded a former district court “erred” when it ruled on a case that centered around Virginia Beach’s former hybrid-at large voting system and if it diluted minority votes.
The judges found the the previous ruling was “moot” given a new Virginia law already abolished the city’s former election system.
The ruling means the city is no longer obligated to follow the new voting system implemented by the lower court. But the timing of the decision means they likely will anyway.
“We feel vindicated that the fourth judicial circuit sided with the city in vacating the district court judge’s ruling,” said Chris Boynton, a deputy Virginia Beach attorney. “We are disappointed it took this long to get here, because we don’t think there is a way to change the election system in time for the November 2022 election.”
In March 2021, Judge Raymond Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that the former system — in which everyone can vote for all City Council and school board members regardless of what district they live in — violated violated the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 by denying “Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians equal access to the electoral and political process.”
Jackson imposed a replacement system on the city. There are now 10 districts that have roughly 46,000 people in them. Three have a majority minority population. The mayor of Virginia Beach will still be voted on by all residents, but the rest of the council members will only be voted on by the people of that particular district.
It was a plan Virginia Beach residents Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen agreed to. They filed the initial complaint about back in 2017.
However by the time Jackson made his ruling, a bill carried by Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, (D-Virginia Beach) had been signed into law by former Gov. Ralph Northam. It also outlawed Virginia Beach’s former voting system.
“The General Assembly’s action left the plaintiffs challenging … an electoral system that no longer governs elections in Virginia Beach,” wrote appellate court Judge Pamela Harris in her ruling.
Holloway declined comment and directed 10 On Your Side to her attorney who was not able to be immediately reached.
Boynton said while the city cannot go back to what they had before, city voters can now legally have more of a say in what a new system would look like.
The former at-large system in place for 50 years, was supported by the many of those in the business, tourism and agriculture communities. Under that system, they had the ear of all members of council. Now, each voter will only elect two members of council.
Previously, Mayor Bobby Dyer said the city should avoid a 10-1 system. However Wednesday he said City Council will have to decide if changes are to be made next year.
“There are a number of possibilities going forward. That will be up to future city council’s to decide,” Boynton said.
The city has spent roughly $2 million fighting the case so far and Boynton said the ruling allows them to avoid paying roughly $4 million in additional attorney’s fees.
“The effort to appeal was obviously so to speak, time well spent,” Boynton said.