Ed. — This story appears as it ran in print on Sunday, March 14. The governor has signed the bill discussed below since this was published.
VIRGINIA BEACH — Uncertainty remains surrounding what local elections will look like in Virginia Beach next year because of legislation that is on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk and an unresolved civil suit that alleges the city’s unusual mix of at-large and district seats violates federal law.
Some members of the City Council this past week said they cannot yet say what local elections will look like here.
“I don’t really know,” said City Councilmember Jessica Abbott, who represents the Kempsville District and who last year sought to hold a referendum about the city’s voting system. The effort to have a referendum did not pass among a divided council.
On Tuesday, March 9, Abbott said much remained in the air because Northam had not yet signed a bill that would eliminate the way Virginia Beach selects district representatives and other voting legislation that could have an effect on city elections, potentially forcing the city to either adapt its current system or possibly adopt a new one, such as several residency districts.
“I think absent direction of a judge or the state, I think we’re going to keep what we have but with single-member districts. But I don’t know,” Abbott said.
At issue is a hybrid system of selecting members of the City Council and School Board. For each body, Virginia Beach voters now choose a mix of four at-large seats and seven district seats. Candidates for at-large seats can live anywhere in the city, and all city voters help pick them. The mayor is one of the four at-large seats on the council.
District seats are represented by people who must live within a geographically defined area of the city but are elected by all city voters. That means voters who live outside the residency districts determine who represents them.
Along party lines, the Virginia General Assembly recently passed a bill introduced by state Del. Kelly Fowler, D-21st District, which requires that only voters within either districts or wards are eligible to vote for representatives of those areas. The bill awaited Northam’s signature as this edition of The Independent News went to press on Thursday, March 11.
Fowler has said the bill would only change who is eligible to vote for district seats, allowing residents of districts the power to select their own representation. However, some officials in Virginia Beach said the requirements of the bill combined with the pending court case do not make it clear what system will be in place next year. Additionally, district boundaries may change due to redistricting which follows the U.S. census.
And the city awaits a decision in a federal voting rights case that alleges the system prevents minority communities the chance to vote for candidates of their choice.
“The federal judge is still the wildcard,” said City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at-large seat. He said the Fowler bill could result in four at-large seats and seven districts with representatives selected by district voters, but other legislation or the court case could mean other requirements to meet.
“The thing to do is wait until the governor makes a decision,” Mayor Bobby Dyer said, adding that he has reached out to Northam, as have other mayors concerned about changes that will effect their local elections.
“Hopefully, the governor will consider letting us hold a referendum,” said Dyer, who had opposed Fowler’s bill, which was introduced without consulting the city.
The City Council discussed the lawsuit and voting system changes as they relate to it during an executive session, meaning behind closed doors, during a retreat at the Virginia Beach Convention Center on Tuesday, March 9.
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