VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Earlier this week, a federal judge made his final ruling a multi-year case that challenged Virginia Beach’s local at-large voting system.
Since 1996, no matter where in the city a resident lived, they voted for all 11 Virginia Beach City Council and School Board members. However, earlier this year, a judge ruled that the system “denies Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians equal access to the electoral and political process.”
Now, we officially know how that is going to change.
On Tuesday, a judge issued an order for the city to adopt new, redrawn maps for voting districts in Virginia Beach.
The 10 districts have roughly 46,000 people in each.
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.
Changing the way residents vote for Virginia Beach City Council and School Board members has been a debate for years. However, it wasn’t until March that federal court Judge Raymond Jackson ruled the system violated the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 by denying minorities equal access to the electoral and political process.
While the city plans to file an appeal, it will likely not affect anything by November 2022, when seven council seats are up for re-election.
In the new maps, the court-appointed special master, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine Dr. Bernard Grofman, drew everyone currently on City Council into their own district — except for current council members Guy Tower and Linwood Branch. They would have to run against each other next year.
What we still don’t know: what the Virginia Beach School Board will do.
They’ve long mirrored what City Council does, but unlike a directly-elected mayor, the School Board chair is selected by other School Board members.
Also, the maps put four School Board members in the same district: Dottie Holtz, Victoria Manning, Laura Hughes and Carolyn Weems.
With a judge making clear several years back that it is illegal to move into another district for the sole purpose of running in another election, three of those members may have no choice but to leave the board at the end of their term.
The deputy city attorney previously advised City Council that a court would likely impose a 10-district, one at-large system. Mayor Bobby Dyer in May said he personally thought the city needed to avoid a 10-1 system.
Many of those in the business, tourism and agriculture communities in Virginia Beach have fought to keep the system of the past 50 years in place. Under that system, they had the ear of all members of council, but under the new district system, they would only have five.
Still, even if the city’s appeal of Tuesday’s redrawn districts is successful, a recently passed state law makes returning to the current system impossible anyway.