By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Two years ago, a Norfolk Federal District Court declared Virginia Beach’s system of electing its council was in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Judge Raymond Jackson said the hybrid district/at-large system, diluted the city’s African-American voter ability to elect candidates to the governing panel of their choice.
Before Judge Jackson approved a voting system to replace it, Virginia State Delegate Kelly Fowler sponsored a bill which outlawed at-large election systems like the one applied in Virginia Beach.
Last year, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the Jackson ruling moot, considering the legislation passed by the legislature.
Also, the city was moving forward on the implementation of a new plan, despite its challenge to the Judge’s ruling.
The city finally created a new 10-1 election system with 10 individual single-member districts and the mayor elected at-large which the court signed off on.
Last November the city held the first election using the format and history was made, as four African-Americans now sit on the council.
Just recently the city highlighted the results of a survey which indicated that a majority of voters approved of the new 10-1 system.
At this point, activists and the plaintiffs who support the new system have noticed that two important pieces needed to finish the complicated puzzle of reforming Virginia Beach’s election system have yet to be put in place.
First, the council has not approved an ordinance to add the new system to the city charter.
And second, nor has it assigned any of the city’s legislative representatives to sponsor a bill to change the city charter to codify the ordinance and the system.
But the city could be making moves to correct that issue.
On August 8, the council is slated to hold a public hearing on an ordinance certifying the new election system.
The following week, it is slated to be approved by the audience.
After those moves, the council will have a State Senator and House of Delegates member representing the city, sponsor a bill in their respective chambers to change the city’s charter.
During a recent council meeting Deputy City Attorney Christopher Boynton warned the council that Virginia Beach could face another federal suit if city leaders do not comply with Jackson’s ruling, or the legislation sponsored by Fowler.
“The barriers to any system other than the 10-1 are strong, if not insurmountable,” Boynton told the city council during that mid-July meeting.
Boynton told the council that city attorneys and the plaintiffs in the suit which abolished the old hybrid system met with Judge Jackson, in late May.
During that council meeting Boynton said the Judge warned that Virginia Beach needs to move forward with approving the new system ordinance and getting the legislature to approve the charter to sanction it.
In 2017, Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen filed a suit claiming the old hybrid at-large/borough system did not comply with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
A special redistricting master drew up the new 10-1 system.
The failure of the city to comply with the court’s order imposing the 10-1 system could prompt the two plaintiffs to file a new suit.
Also, the city runs the risk of not being able to hold council elections 2024.
“The court expressed extreme frustration with the city’s pace of considering the election system to this point,” Boynton told the council. “It made clear that it believed only the 10-1 system with these three minority opportunity districts is sufficient to overcome the Voting Rights Act issues.”
The 10-1 ward system, with three minority opportunity districts (Districts 4, 7 and 10), where minority voters are the majority, was used in November.
Civil Rights Activist Roy Perry-Bey, who helped secure Holloway and Allen as plaintiffs and a legal team to plead their suit, said Black civic and political leaders in Virginia Beach should be vigilant.
“The council is dragging its feet deliberately,” said Perry-Bey. “They may be trying to find a way to avoid complying with Judge Jackson’s ruling or the legislation. But they will only face another suit and have to spend more taxpayers’ dollars to defend a system residents do not want anymore.”
Perry-Bey believes there are members of the council who would like to revert back to the “old racist system.”
Perry-Bey said opponents of the new system could try to drag their feet “hoping the Republicans get stronger control of the State House of Delegates and reclaim the Senate.”
The city will need two-thirds of the votes in both chambers, and the Governor’s signature to get a charter changed.
“They could lobby a Republican-controlled state legislature to turn down the charter change,” said Perry-Bey. “But the plaintiffs are ready to go back to court to force them to comply.”
To keep the old system Perry-Bey said the city could write an ordinance to change its residency requirements. When the old system was in place, individuals did not have to live in the district to vote for a candidate representing that district.
So, even if a candidate received the majority support of the residents in that district, their decision could be nullified by people living outside of it.
Civil rights, civic and Black political leaders in Virginia Beach have been concerned about the city making such a move.