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Citing lawsuit, state Republicans oppose Virginia Beach’s city charter change for 10-district system

Virginia NAACP President Cozy Bailey introduces Democratic lawmakers at a press conference on the Virginia Beach charter change on Jan. 29. (Photo by Brad Kutner, WVTF)
Virginia NAACP President Cozy Bailey introduces Democratic lawmakers at a press conference on the Virginia Beach charter change on Jan. 29. (Photo by Brad Kutner, WVTF)

Virginia Democrats are calling on Republicans in the House of Delegates to drop their opposition to a city charter change from the city of Virginia Beach to enshrine its 10-district voting system.

Republicans say the change shouldn’t move forward in light of a new lawsuit.

The proposed charter change, which needs to be approved by the state legislature, would replace the city’s old voting system with the 10-district, one-mayor system that a federal court imposed for the 2022 election and that the city council itself adopted last year.

A judge found the old voting system, in which voters elected council seats at-large, violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting minority voting power. That’s because voting for district seats at-large in a city that was nearly 70% white left minority residents with no way to select representatives of their choice, even in districts where minorities made up a majority of voters.

The new direct-election system has been in use since 2022, despite the city’s charter still citing the old system.

But a lawsuit filed on Jan. 24 by a group of citizens that includes a former city councilman is seeking to halt future elections under the new voting system. House Republicans now say legislation should wait until that litigation’s been resolved. 

Republican delegates Barry Knight and Anne Ferrell Tata – both from Virginia Beach – voted against moving the bill out of committee on Jan. 19. Both cited the lawsuit, though it wouldn’t be filed until five days after the committee meeting where they voted against the charter change.

Tata said advancing the bill would be premature, given the impending litigation.

The committee advanced the bill anyway, with the vote split down party lines. It hasn’t yet made it to the full House floor for a vote.

An identical version of the bill passed the full state Senate unanimously, without any Republican opposition.

Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, the Democrat who is carrying the House version of the bill, called the opposition from House Republicans an effort to “thwart democracy” at a press conference Monday morning.

“The efforts to disenfranchise voters in Virginia Beach are nothing new,” Convirs-Fowler said. “The will of the voters has been tamped down ever since the conception of the voting system in the 1960s.” 

A survey from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center found that four out of five Virginia Beach residents support the new voting system. 

“We cannot let the will of the few stop the democratic process through frivolous lawsuits,” Convirs-Fowler said.

In its response to the lawsuit, the city of Virginia Beach said the court found that any at-large methods of election would diminish the voting power of minority residents, meaning the system that exists in the city charter conflicts with state and federal voting rights laws

The city says that’s true even if it uses a hybrid system with some districts and some at-large seats.

WVTF's Brad Kutner contributed to this story.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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