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The road to ward voting in Hampton Roads

The entrance to a voting room at a Virginia Beach polling place in 2023.
Photo by Mechelle Hankerson
The entrance to a voting room at a Virginia Beach polling place in 2023.

As cities prepare for local elections, a look back at how ward-based voting systems came to be and why now, cities like Chesapeake are looking at changing its system.

In November voters across Hampton Roads will go to the polls to cast votes for president, U.S. senate and local municipal offices.

Most cities in the region have shifted to ward-based elections, which have helped to create more diversified councils.

For years, local city council members were elected through an at-large system, where top vote-getters take a seat on council.

“With an at-large election, the entire city, as opposed to being broken down into specific wards or districts , votes on a slate of candidates,” said Joshua Zingher, a political science professor at Old Dominion University.

“Imagine it’s an at-large election with a nine-member city council. Everyone in the city cast nine votes, and the top nine vote-getters are who is represented on the city council.”

Black candidates were routinely shut out of city hall in several cities, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach because of that system.

Through 1977, only two Black candidates were elected to Norfolk City Council, despite 35% of the city’s population being Black.

Herbert Collins and the city’s NAACP chapter launched and won a lengthy court battle to install a hybrid ward system in the 1980s. They argued that the at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act.

“When the Voting Rights Act was renewed in the early ’70s, they changed the language to discriminatory ‘effect’ from discriminatory ‘intent,’ which is a much lower bar to clear,” Zhinger said.

Delegate William P. Robinson Jr. was a prominent advocate for the system. He and other leaders thought a ward system was the only way to get more Black candidates elected to city council.

Zhinger describes a ward system as “nine equally sized wards, and equally sized meaning by population, not by geography. So it doesn't matter how big the geographic spaces or small, they're going to be equal in terms of the amount of people we live there, each ward elects their own member to the city council.”

The ward system had its detractors despite its perceived advancement in representation.

Joseph Jordan Jr. was a judge, civil rights leader, and, in 1968, became the first Black person elected to Norfolk’s City Council since Reconstruction.

His nephew Rodney Jordan speaks about the late councilman’s position.

“Uncle Joseph was opposed to (the ward system), in part because … he felt that was rewarding the residential segregation in the Jim Crow segregation that he and so many others fought against, as well as acting to continue to divide the city along racial lines,” Jordan said.

In July 1984, not long after he said ward systems would create “racial quotas,” U.S. District Judge J. Calvitt Clarke Jr. ruled that the at-large system did not discriminate against Black residents.

The NAACP appealed the decision, but in July 1985, the court upheld the ruling. A few months later the 4th Circuit refused to hear the case a second time.

Within a few days, the suit’s proponents responded by appealing to the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled that the three judges who upheld Norfolk’s at-large voting system would re-hear the case. After several months of deliberation, the appeals court sent suit back to the U.S. District Court for a second look. They ruled that Judge Calvitt Jr. had “erred” in his initial decision.

In August 1989, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that Norfolk’s at-large voting system denied Black voters equal opportunity to elect preferred candidates.

By October 1990 the ward system was fully implemented. The Department of Justice approved it in 1991.

Norfolk City Hall in the 1920s. Until 1977, only two Black candidates were elected to Norfolk City Council.
Photo courtesy of the Sargeant Memorial Collection at the Slover Library
Norfolk City Hall in the 1920s. Until 1977, only two Black candidates were elected to Norfolk City Council.

Since then, the five-ward system has consistently resulted in two Black representatives holding district seats and one of the at-large seats.

The Norfolk case launched other Hampton Roads localities and parts of North Carolina like Elizabeth City and Camden into ward-based elections.

Virginia Beach, however, stuck with its at-large system.

But more than two decades later in 2017, a lawsuit forced Virginia Beach to shift away from its hybrid -at-large system.

Attempts to make the change permanent in its city charter were rebuffed by Governor Glenn Youngkin, who cited the pending legal challenge.

In May, the Chesapeake NAACP called for changes to its at-large system.

Councilman Don Carey said Black citizens feel shut out by the current at-large system.

“A lot of the Black community is saying the representation we have on council doesn’t really pay attention to their areas,” he said.

“We have the areas of Crestwood or South Norfolk, or Camelot, Georgetown, but they have not had anyone elected from those neighborhoods to council in a very long time.”

Carey said a city like Chesapeake that has grown so dramatically poses challenges to council members who might not know or understand the issues facing certain neighborhoods.

“Each one of our communities has a distinct history, culture and way of life. I found myself going to different communities often and at best, I was a visitor,” he said. “I didn’t understand the historical nuances of the community. I didn’t fully understand the issue. I could only advocate for one issue at a time. Citizens aren’t fairly represented.”

The issue of ward based politics isn’t unique to the Hampton Roads region. Other places are also weighing the options of shifting away from at-large elections.

In Hayward, CA, city leaders agreed to change their local voting districtsafter a resident filed a lawsuit claiming the at-large system dilutes the large Asian population’s vote.

Barry Graham used to arrive at WHRO with a briefcase full of papers and lesson plans. For 32 years he taught US and Virginia Government in the Virginia Beach Public Schools. While teaching was always his first love, radio was a close second. While attending Old Dominion, Barry was program director at WODU, the college radio station. After graduating, he came to WHRO as an overnight announcer. Originally intending to stay on only while completing graduate school, he was soon hooked on Public Radio and today is the senior announcer on WHRV. In 2001, Barry earned his Ph.D in Urban Studies by writing a history of WHRO and analyzing its impact upon local education, policy and cultural arts organizations.
Connor Worley is a Missouri native who creates long-form content in coordination with WHRO’s newsroom and other departments. WHRV listeners will recognize Connor as an occasional on-air host. Connor earned his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Print from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in Journalism and Audio at the Cronkite School of Arizona State. Connor enjoys the great outdoors, technology, and music. He lives in Virginia Beach.

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