BACK BAY — This past month, Gov. Ralph Northam signed the controversial district voting bill that was introduced by state Del Kelly Fowler, D-21st District. It passed both houses of the Virginia General Assembly along party lines and over the objections of some officials in Virginia Beach.
Though it effects a couple of other municipalities, it squarely changes this city’s unusual hybrid system of selecting local leaders in nonpartisan races. Virginia Beach has four at-large City Council and School Board representatives and seven district reps on each body — though voters who live outside the districts have helped determine their representation. For the council, the mayor is one of the four at-large reps.
Again, that is going to change, though it isn’t certain how just yet, due in part to other legislation and a just-decided federal suit that challenges the voting system here.
After this column initially appeared in print on Sunday, March 28, a federal judge found against the city, supporting the argument by the plaintiffs saying the unusual at-large system here “dilutes the voting strength of Black, Latino and Asian American voters … and therefore prevents minority voters from participating in the political process and electing representatives of their choice.”
The effects of that ruling by Judge Raymond Jackson on Wednesday, March 31, are not yet entirely clear, but this is the final nail in the coffin containing the local voting system as we have know it in Virginia Beach
Under the law signed by the governor, as of next year, only people within districts can vote for district representation. City Councilmember Barbara Henley on Tuesday, March 23, requested a public legal briefing about change and implications for the city. Henley told her colleagues it is important for the public to understand the change and implementation.
She had spoken critically of the bill – and, this past week, the initial lack of media coverage of its signing.
“It was snuck through the legislature,” Henley said. “And you might tell me that I used an improper word. Well, it was an improper process.”
In terms of the Princess Anne District, which contains this newspaper’s main coverage area, I am interested in comments I’ve heard over the years that incumbents such as Henley are more popular outside their districts than within them.
I hope to dig a bit deeper into that later, but I took a quick look at 2018 Princess Anne numbers by comparing what district voters wanted compared to citywide voters. This is a limited look, but I didn’t see all that much difference.
So the numbers I’ll mention in a moment include some voters outside the district because of where district and precinct lines may differ. This is just for discussion. I looked at 18 precincts, and I did not look at absentee or provisional votes.
Henley’s race in 2018 was a bit unusual in that she faced three challengers, including Tim Worst, who placed second after gaining some attention for trading words with former Mayor Will Sessoms during a council meeting. Karen Beardslee Kwasny, the third place candidate, was a former member of the Planning Commission similar to Henley on some issues. A fourth candidate, Pieri Burton, dropped out, though his name was on the ballot.
But, essentially, there were three candidates. Henley earned 46.9 percent of the vote citywide, Worst earned 26.2 percent for second place and Kwasny 23.6 for third. Up until now, voters throughout the city pick district reps. So these were the numbers that mattered.
Within the district, Henley also won, but it was by a smaller margin. She earned about 42.7 percent of the vote to 30 percent for Worst and 25.1 percent for Kwasny. That is still a decisive margin, but there is a difference. Still, the district got the representative it wanted. That doesn’t mean that happens every time, and the Fowler bill as law makes a district certain to make its own choices.
The numbers were extremely close in the 2018 district School Board race between two candidates. Incumbent Kim Melnyk defeated challenger Paul Day, a retired police officer, 59.7 percent of the vote to 39.6 percent citywide. Within the rough district area, the numbers were virtually identical.
Other things could come into play next year, and voters should pay attention, especially as the city figures out the next system, perhaps with some guidance from the courts.
It’s possible that Fowler has been right in suggesting that local elections would look similar next year — meaning the same number of at-large and district seats, though only voters within the districts pick their reps.
If that is the case, a challenger might benefit from appealing to a smaller number of voters through targeted mail and social media. It means more affordable City Council and School Board races. Maybe.
The approach Fowlers sees as likely makes sense because the law does not go into effect until January, and there really is not all that much time left to figure out how to do this. The impact of the court case is still an unknown, though — meaning the shape of districts could change, for example — and redistricting based upon Census data will also factor in.
If Henley runs again, someone could give her a challenge in a one-on-one race within the district — or give significant opposition to any candidate who runs as an advocate for rural areas and agriculture.
I’m not suggesting, for example, all 2018 Kwasny votes would go to a Tim Worst-type candidate instead of an incumbent such as Henley or another candidate who values the issues for which Henley is known. But Worst and Kwasny, combined, pulled big numbers in Sandbridge and the nearby Sigma precinct.
That matters because the district, as it exists now, is diverse and changing. It is not a monolithic hive mind concerned only with a certain set of issues, as some folks sometimes suggest because of rural and agricultural interests, as important as those issues are.
I am not trying to say that the 2018 numbers predict 2022.
But it seems to be worth considering whether the divisions between districts and citywide voting are as great as we might think. Fowler’s bill, whatever its merits, potentially is a significant change for rural voters who make up much of The Independent News’ readership.
That suggests that organizations such as Virginia Beach Farm Bureau should hold a forum next year for all local races and get people on the record on issues of concern to farmers and rural residents.
Newspaper such as this one should help them do so.
And 2022 could be a big difference for candidates appealing to perhaps 24,000 voters rather than the 100,000-plus who voted in the Princess Anne District race last time. This was a big point of some testimony in October for the federal suit: it is harder to run citywide.
People who care about rural issues should pay attention and participate. There is a big change coming, and the scope of it remains to be seen.
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