Federal judge rules Virginia Beach’s local election system illegal, says it denies minorities equal access to electoral process

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A judge has ruled that Virginia Beach’s current voting system — in which everyone can vote for all City Council and school board members regardless of what district they live in — violates the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The judge ruled Wednesday that the system “denies Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians equal access to the electoral and political process.”

The ruling instructs the city to stop using the existing at-large voting system.

The judge’s ruling comes after Gov. Ralph Northam signed Virginia Beach Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler’s H.B. 2198, which would start in 2022 and makes it so voters will only elect two or three council members and school board members every other year under the new system — unless City Council asks the General Assembly to switch them to an all-at-large system.

The two sides of the federal case — the City of Virginia Beach and residents Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen — will now reappear in court to decide if the judge will rule on a specific type of replacement system that’s different than the one the state-imposed through recent legislation.

“We are reviewing the court’s decision. The City attorney will brief the city council in closed session on Tuesday,” a city spokeswoman said.

Residents and groups, from the NAACP to the Tea Party, have lobbied council to change the unique system for years.

Allen and Holloway filed the complaint about the voting system originally in 2017. They said the system that’s been in place for the last 50 years violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it “has the effect of diluting or minimizing ‘minority voting strength’ and was adopted to “promote racially discriminatory objectives.”

In filing the legislation for the 2021 General Assembly session, Fowler argued that the system that allowed voters in the city to vote for all 11 council members — even though seven of them represent specific districts — “disenfranchises voters” because a candidate could currently have the support of all the people in the district they represent, but lose the election.

However, 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.

On Thursday, the Virginia Beach NAACP Branch President Dr. Karen Hills Pruden released a statement on the judge’s ruling.

“The Virginia Beach NAACP Branch is pleased to learn of the United States District Court’s decision that the At-Large Voting System in the City of Virginia Beach violated the Voting Rights Act. The dismantling of the At-Large Voting System of the City reveals the sometimes-competing agendas of democracy and the rule of law (or systems). There is a presumption that in a democracy, the winner is the elected representative of the majority who they represent. This is not the case when the rule of law (or systems) are crafted to ensure one party has an advantage over another.

“This system, in place since 1966, has adversely impacted generations of People of Color. The Virginia Beach City Council is responsible for earmarking capital for infrastructure and services throughout the City. Although we are pleased that the current system will not be used in the future, our attention has already moved forward to see what type of penalty the Court imposes to compensate for the decades of harm inflicted upon the People of Color of this Resort City.

“It is the objective of this Branch to ensure all citizens of the community have full representation. It is critical that laws, systems, or practices, which impedes this objective be dismantled. The Virginia Beach NAACP Branch is grateful for the precedence of this ruling and what such a ruling may mean for future People of Color generations of the City.”

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