General Assembly to consider bill that could change Virginia Beach local elections system


VIRGINIA BEACH — A bill that may be considered by the state legislature could force the city to change its voting system of at-large and district seats, which critics say disenfranchises voters and makes it harder to seek local public office because voters who live outside of geographically-defined districts help choose the people who represents those areas.

The bill [HB2198] that city officials say targets this system could soon be considered by the General Assembly after advancing from a committee this past week. It would require that all voters of a locality can vote for at-large seats, but only voters within a district or ward could vote for candidates for that specific ward or district seat.

The bill, though it does not name Virginia Beach, was introduced by state Del. Kelly Fowler, a Democrat from Virginia Beach who represents parts of this city and Chesapeake in the 21st District. As law, it would change how Virginia Beach picks leaders, and some city officials say it would rewrite the rules without input from local officials or voters.

Some members of the City Council said they were blindsided by the bill, but Fowler said the council had a chance to support a referendum last year to ask voters about the issue. The council voted against holding one in 2020, though officials said they would revisit the issue.

“I think it’s important to have true representation that’s accountable to voters,” Fowler said during a telephone interview on Wednesday, Jan. 27.

She said people outside the city do not understand when they hear Virginia Beach employs a system in which district representatives are elected, in part, by voters who live outside a district.

“I think that really this is a surprising concept to most people who aren’t from here and aren’t used to it,” she said.

“Yes, the idea came from the city of Virginia Beach and what we do,” Fowler said, “but the bill is meant for the entire state so it can’t be done in the future.”

City elected officials said Fowler did not communicate with them about the bill.

“You know how I found out about that bill?” Mayor Bobby Dyer said during a telephone interview on Tuesday, Jan. 26. “On Facebook.”

Vice Mayor Jim Wood said it is unusual for a member of a local delegation to put in such a consequential bill without talking with the locality about it.

“The fact that she didn’t consult the council or the mayor – and this is something she designed to specifically to impact the city of Virginia Beach – is unfortunate,” Wood said.

There has been no formal City Council discussion or vote on the matter due to the timing, they said, but some members of the council reached out to City Manager Patrick Duhaney, and a lobbyist for the city reported objections during a House of Delegates Privileges and Elections committee meeting.

On Thursday, Jan. 28, the day the current print edition of The Independent News went to press, Dyer and Wood wrote a letter to the entire Virginia Beach General Assembly delegation. It objects to the bill and one other [HB1890], which they say exceeds requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act and, in part, would change standards for liability and legal defenses while the city is “litigating the exact issues.”

In an ongoing suit against Virginia Beach, plaintiffs Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen argue the system denies minority candidates “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice,” violating the Voting Rights Act. This is why few minorities have held office in the city, the suit says.

Dyer and Wood in their Jan. 28 letter urge the delegation not to support the bills, saying neither should be considered while the city awaits a court decision.

The Fowler bill, they write, “targets the residency districts created by the Virginia Beach City Charter,” districts which “ensure all geographic areas of the city are represented on the City Council.”

“I think to submit something like this without any public discussion disturbs me greatly,” said City Councilmember Barbara Henley, speaking of the Fowler bill during an interview. Henley represents the Princess Anne District and has warned that changing the system could mean less of a stake among district council members in issues other districts face.

“That means either we have at-large or we have wards,” Henley said. “I’m not sure everybody wants to be governed by ward politicians. I think that’s something that needs to be discussed by the people, and the people need to have input.”

However, City Councilmember Jessica Abbott, who represents the Kempsville District and last year pushed for the council to engage voters on the issue through a referendum, said she understands why Fowler put in the bill.

“I think this bill’s introduction is a result of our inaction,” she said on Thursday, Jan. 28. “I think it’s unlikely that, if we had passed a referendum, that the bill would be introduced because we would have something that said, ‘This is the public’s view on the issue.’”

City Councilmember Guy Tower, representing the Beach District, said he did not have a position on the bill. He supported holding a referendum last year, and he said it is likely most citizens are open to people in districts choosing their own leaders.

“I think district voting at this time in our history is something people are ready for,” he said.

State Del. Kelly Fowler [Official photo]

There are seven geographically-distinct voting districts within Virginia Beach and three at-large seats.

For at-large City Council seats – and also for the directly-elected mayor – candidates can live anywhere within the city, and all city voters select them.

District seat representatives must live in the district, but they are selected by all city voters, meaning voters from outside a district shape its representation.

Local elections for the School Board are similar, though the chairperson is selected by School Board members from among their ranks and not directly elected into that role.

The system has been widely discussed for years. Two referendums in the 1990s brought conflicting opinions.

In 2020, Abbott sought a referendum about possibly changing the system, but it failed to gain the support of a council majority, with some members saying there was not time to educate the public before the elections.

Last year, Abbott said the new generation of Virginia Beach voters should have a say. In July, after the council vote, Abbott wanted to form a commission to engage the issue and public. Dyer said he would support that process.

That has not yet happened, but, this past week, Dyer said it will be discussed during an upcoming retreat, and Abbott said she wants that conversation to take place.

Regarding the Fowler bill, Abbott said she would prefer it include a provision for public engagement.

“It would have been nice to collaborate on it, but I don’t think she owes us a call,” Abbott said.

Fowler, noting the council decision not to hold a referendum in 2020, said it is “obvious” the city is not going to address the issue.

“We already know their stance,” she said. “They voted down [holding] a referendum last year.”

The bill has had enough backing at the subcommittee and committee levels to advance, but not everyone supports it. State Del. Barry Knight, R-81st District, said the bill potentially becoming law has troubling implications for Virginia Beach voters, including those in rural communities.

“Now, you vote for everybody,” Knight said. “The other [district] council members will not be as concerned about us because we can’t vote for them.”

The Princess Anne District, one of seven residency districts in the city of Virginia Beach, is shown in dark red. [Charles Apple/For The Princess Anne Independent News]

Privileges and Elections considered a substitute version of the Fowler bill on Wednesday, Jan. 27, during a committee meeting. An amendment was added so it might go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, rather than this July.

State Del. Robert S. Bloxom Jr., R-100th District, raised the question of why the General Assembly would weigh in on a matter that is in federal court. “This is in a specific lawsuit, if I’m not mistaken,” he said. “In fact, I think the patron is involved in that lawsuit, so I would say this is highly unusual for us to be tackling. This probably needs to be put on the back burner until that lawsuit is settled.”

Fowler was a witness called by the plaintiffs in the federal case, but she is not a party in the case. In that matter, Fowler testified that her family background includes Mexican and Filipino heritage, and she said she has seen instances where precincts with Filipino-American voters seemed to support her elections efforts in contests for her seat.

She also said she had looked at the city’s at large system as part of her work with Privileges and Elections and concluded “the voting system disenfranchises voters, minority voters.”

During the committee meeting last week, the legislative affairs liaison for the city of Virginia Beach, Debra Bryan, told the committee a majority of the City Council is opposed to the Fowler bill.

“The main reason that I’m here today is HB2198 will unilaterally compel the citizens of the city of Virginia Beach to change the way they elect their leaders,” Bryan said. “The city’s charter still contains a requirement that the locality put forth a referendum for such a change, and this bill would supersede that requirement. The main reason we’re opposed is we believe it should be the citizens of the locality who make the decision to change the system, not a statewide mandate.”

The committee chairperson, state Del. Marcus Simon, D-53rd District, said he understood concern about the lawsuit might cause some not to support the bill. While it may apply to the Beach system, he said, the bill “is drawn to speak to anybody who might adopt such a system or anywhere else this might be happening.”

Simon also noted that Fowler is a witness in the suit involving Virginia Beach, but she is not a party to it.

Bryan said the court case could deliver a ruling inconsistent with the bill.

The chairperson said the General Assembly can establish what members consider to be a better policy.

Fowler, speaking to Bryan, said the city gave as its reasoning a desire to hold a referendum and let voters decide the matter.

“I’m trying to seek some clarity on that because the council voted that down last year in July, 5-6, not to do a referendum and not to ask the voters,” Fowler said.

Has the council changed its position?

“The City Council has directed that we oppose this for the reason that, one, we don’t want the voters to be confused by having this kind of legislation unilaterally change the way that they vote,” Bryan said. “Two, there has been, I believe, a shift in that thinking … especially with this pending lawsuit, (voters) have a right, if it is in their ability to do so, to have some sort of say in the way in which they vote.”

“Was this a discussion that the council has had recently or publicly?” Fowler asked.

Bryan said it came from a majority of the council, but there was not time for a formal discussion.

Two citizens from Virginia Beach, both of whom have sought local office, spoke in support of the bill. One, Conrad Schesventer, who works at an Oceanfront hotel, said this to the state delegates:

“Imagine each of you, by law, live in your district, represent your district but the rest of the state’s population can vote for or against you. … Let us be a representative democracy just like you.”

Virginia Beach citizens wait in line for early voting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center in 2020. [File/The Princess Anne Independent News]

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