Federal judge rules Virginia Beach’s local election system illegal, says it denies minorities equal access to electoral process

Virginia News

In this Sept. 8, 2020 photo, voting booths are kept socially distant at the Chesterfield, N.H. polling site. A majority of President Donald Trump’s supporters plan to cast their ballot on Election Day, while about half of Joe Biden’s backers plan to vote by mail. That’s according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that finds 54% of voters say they will vote before polls open on Nov. 3. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A judge has ruled that Virginia Beach’s current voting system — in which everyone can vote for all City Council and school board members regardless of what district they live in — violates the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The judge ruled Wednesday that the system “denies Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians equal access to the electoral and political process.”

The ruling instructs the city to stop using the existing at-large voting system.

The judge’s ruling comes after Gov. Ralph Northam signed Virginia Beach Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler’s H.B. 2198, which would start in 2022 and makes it so voters will only elect two or three council members and school board members every other year under the new system — unless City Council asks the General Assembly to switch them to an all-at-large system.

The two sides of the federal case — the City of Virginia Beach and residents Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen — will now reappear in court to decide if the judge will rule on a specific type of replacement system that’s different than the one the state-imposed through recent legislation.

“We are reviewing the court’s decision. The City attorney will brief the city council in closed session on Tuesday,” a city spokeswoman said.

Residents and groups, from the NAACP to the Tea Party, have lobbied council to change the unique system for years.

Allen and Holloway filed the complaint about the voting system originally in 2017. They said the system that’s been in place for the last 50 years violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it “has the effect of diluting or minimizing ‘minority voting strength’ and was adopted to “promote racially discriminatory objectives.”

In filing the legislation for the 2021 General Assembly session, Fowler argued that the system that allowed voters in the city to vote for all 11 council members — even though seven of them represent specific districts — “disenfranchises voters” because a candidate could currently have the support of all the people in the district they represent, but lose the election.

However, those in the business, tourism and agriculture communities in Virginia Beach have fought to keep the system of the past 50 years in place. Under that system, they had the ear of all members of council, but under the new district system, they would only have five.

Stay with WAVY.com for updates.

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