Is Virginia Beach’s hybrid voting system illegal? A judge could decide before end of year

Virginia Beach

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The outcome of a trial surrounding Virginia Beach’s voting system is being carefully watched — as it could drastically alter the way business is done in the resort city.

For more than 50 years, all voters in the city have been able to vote for all 11 council members — even though seven of them represent specific districts.

A federal judge is now being asked to rule that the at-large hybrid system illegal — replacing it with a system of wards or single-member districts — meaning that a voter would only be able to vote for their district representative and any at-large members.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the City of Virginia Beach rested their case after nearly a week and a half of testimony in front of District Judge Raymond Jackson at Norfolk’s federal courthouse.

The case was originally filed 2017 by Virginia Beach residents Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen. They allege the current system in place violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as it “has the effect of diluting or minimizing ‘minority voting strength’ and was adopted to “promote racially discriminatory objectives.”

Under the current system, if the candidate that is mandated to live within the district wins the majority of the votes from that district’s residents, they could still lose because of votes from other parts of the city.

The accusations are nothing new, and residents and groups — ranging from the NAACP to the Tea Party — have lobbied council to change the unique system for years.

Most recently, Councilwoman Jessica Abbott (Kempsville District) brought forward a proposal to place the question to the voters on the November ballot. Even if a majority of voters elected to move to a single-member district format, the General Assembly would still get the final say.

Ultimately, the effort to get it placed on the ballot failed on a 5-6 vote with a majority of council saying the issue was “too complex” to throw to the voters on such short notice.

Still, many speakers showed up to explain their position.

“If a city councilperson from Kempsville receives every single vote there was from voters in Kempsville — every vote,” Jackson said. “You could take one vote more that came across the city and somebody that didn’t want her, to beat her. Understand here, citizens, it’s a system that is rigged.” 

It’s true that if single-district voting was in place, the council would likely look different. In an analysis of election returns completed by 10 On Your Side, in 2018 then-Councilman John Uhrin was the top vote-getter in the district he represented — the Beach District. However, Uhrin ultimately lost the citywide vote to former Councilman David Nygaard.

A similar case in 1989 led to the evolution of Norfolk’s voting system from at-large to its current ward model.

However, leaders in the business community fear what could happen if Virginia Beach followed suit.

“Carefully consider the implications on the business community on the City of Virginia Beach,” said Bob Pizzini — CEO of iFly Virginia Beach Indoor Skydiving and leader of the city chapter of the Hampton Roads Chamber — to the council over the summer. “We have an incredible system right now.”

There is fear of what could become of the investment in tourism if council would leave the at-large system of voting. Currently, the Oceanfront community has the ear of all of council. Under a district system, they would only have five.

Final findings of fact and law must be submitted to the judge no later than December 1. He could make his ruling after that.

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