VIRGINIA BEACH — The city will appeal a federal judge’s finding that declared its unusual local voting system illegal because it denies minority communities the right to elect candidates of their choice.
The March opinion ordered a stop to the system’s use a year before the next local elections in 2022. Along with new state law passed this year, Virginia Beach’s local voting system will be different next year, though it is not certain how.
The city announced its decision to appeal in a statement attributed to Mayor Bobby Dyer that was released on Wednesday, May 26. The City Council had discussed the case during a closed session on Tuesday, May 25, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.
“Despite our best efforts, the parties in the Holloway v. City of Virginia Beach case have been unable to achieve a mutually agreeable settlement,” Dyer said in the statement. “The city is therefore proceeding with an appeal of the district court’s decision, which will be filed with the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in June.”
Dyer could not immediately be reached for comment.
In late March, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond A. Jackson agreed with plaintiffs Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen in finding the Virginia Beach system “dilutes the voting strength of Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters” and prevents minority communities from electing candidates of their choice. The system is in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, Jackson found.
The city has disputed facts and some arguments in the matter, such as whether the minority groups noted in the suit vote as a bloc, which would be an element of an appeal, according to the statement released by the city.
That statement reads, in part: “The city’s position is that the plaintiffs’ case fails as a matter of law and fact, and that plaintiffs cannot show, under existing data, that any single minority group is sufficiently large or compact to constitute a majority within any single voting district.”
The city says the plaintiffs’ arguments wrongly combine “Black voters with Asian and Hispanic voters because the law does not authorize combining minority groups to state a claim under Section 2 and because all three minorities in Virginia Beach do not vote cohesively as one political group.”
In the near term, the decision to appeal changes the nature of a series of meetings in which the city planned to discuss a proposed “7-3-1” system for local elections that had been part of settlement discussions. Those meetings will still be held, and the city still wants to hear from citizens.
Further out, the appeal cast continued uncertainty over how exactly voters in Virginia Beach will select City Council and School Board members in the 2022 local elections.
Any new system will need to meet court approval and comply with state laws that challenge aspects of a local “at large” voting system in which people who live outside of seven residency districts have helped determined who represents those districts. An overview of the system can be found at this link.
In the proposed 7-3-1 system for City Council elections, the mayor would be elected by all city voters, and there would be seven wards and three superwards similar in concept to superwards in Norfolk. Superwards could cover multiple wards but not the entire city, as the four at-large council seats do under the present system.
Candidates would need to reside within a ward or superward, and only people residing within those boundaries would vote to determine its representation. Voters under this proposed system could vote for three members of the council though they have voted for all 11 council members in the past.
Under that proposal, at least two wards and one superward would be drawn as “minority opportunity” districts.
It is possible the city could still propose such a system to the court, but it would not be a joint proposal between the plaintiffs and defendant in the case. The plaintiffs have advocated for a system of 10 geographically distinct wards. Only the mayor – the 11th council member – elected citywide.
Though the court case focuses upon City Council elections, any new system would likely determine how School Board elections are conducted, too.
“We may still present a 7-3-1 plan – we the city,” City Attorney Mark Stiles said during an interview on Wednesday, May 26. “I believe the plaintiffs are likely to present a 10-1 plan, but that is up to them to do.”
The judge in the case would determine the remedy to the suit, and Stiles said the city will comply with the order in the case and turn in a proposal to the court by Thursday, July 1.
A public briefing about possible changes to the system is still scheduled for Tuesday, June 1, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Public hearings are scheduled for Tuesday, June 8, and Tuesday, June 15. The City Council still seeks comments about what kind of voting system citizens want here.
“We’re still going to have another public briefing on Tuesday,” Stiles said on Wednesday, May 26, “and still allow the public to come in and tell us their thoughts on [June] 8th and 15th, but that’s not pursuant to the settlement at this point.”
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