Holloway vs. City of Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach residents Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen asked a federal court to change the City’s election system to district-based voting to remedy what they believe has been a violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Information about the voter districts imposed by the U.S. District Court are available at the link below (see orange button). Note that the City of Virginia Beach is complying with the District Court’s ruling while simultaneously appealing the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. These voter districts are also subject to pre-clearance approval by the Virginia Attorney General.
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Representation is a fundamental element of American democracy, and there are numerous models that American communities follow to elect representatives.

Since it was chartered as a municipal corporation on January 1, 1963, Virginia Beach has elected its 11-member City Council to staggered four-year terms, meaning that about half of the seats are up for election during each general election in even numbered years. All registered voters are eligible to vote for all 11 members of the Council. The mayor and three Council members are elected and serve “at large” (citywide) with no district residency requirements. The remaining seven representatives are required to live in the districts they represent: Bayside, Beach, Centerville, Kempsville, Lynnhaven, Princess Anne and Rose Hall. The vice mayor is elected by the City Council at the first meeting in January following a Council election. 

Latasha Holloway, et. al. v. City of Virginia Beach, et. al. 

In Holloway vs. City of Virginia Beach, Virginia Beach residents Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen asked a federal court to change the City's election system to remedy what they believe is a violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.  Specifically, they contend that the City's current voting system dilutes the voting strength of a coalition of Black, Hispanic and Asian minority groups. They have asked the court to consider, among other things, an election system with 10 single member districts. In this form, only the voters residing in each district would elect the Council member from that district. Only the mayor would be elected at large.  

The Legal Standard

Under existing legal precedent, in order to prevail in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were required to prove that 1) the minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority within a single member voting district; 2) that the minority group tends to vote cohesively (for the same candidates); and 3) that the majority votes sufficiently as a bloc so as to enable it to usually defeat the minority's preferred candidate. If these "preconditions" are proved, the plaintiffs must then also prove that the City's voting system "under the totality of circumstances" diminishes the ability of a minority group to elect its candidates of choice.  

The City’s Position

In pre-trial pleadings and at trial, the City asserted that the plaintiffs' case fails as a matter of law and fact. The City contends 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 also asserted that plaintiffs cannot avoid this defect in their case by combining Black voters with Asian and Hispanic voters because (1) the law does not specifically authorize combining minority groups in order to state a claim under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act ("a coalition claim") and (2) the three minority groups do not vote cohesively as one group in any event.

The Trial and Subsequent Ruling 

The federal court conducted a six-day trial beginning on October 6, 2020. The court then instructed the parties to submit post-trial briefs. On March 31, 2021, the trial court issued an opinion and order finding that the City's voting system violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting strength of the Black, Asian and Hispanic minority groups. The court concluded that coalition claims are legally permissible and found that these minority groups in Virginia Beach are politically cohesive. The court has prohibited the City from using the historical system in any future elections and will be making a determination of what the future election system will be. The court also awarded the plaintiffs' their attorneys' fees and costs in an amount also to be determined.  

Other Recent Developments: Changes in State Law   

While defending the Holloway case through trial, the City understood that if it prevailed, it would have the option of keeping the historical system intact if that was the will of the public and the City Council. The City Council discussed holding a referendum regarding the election system during the November 2020 election but ultimately voted not to do so after several council members expressed concern that COVID-19 protocols would prevent or unduly limit necessary public information and outreach efforts. Subsequently, the option of retaining the current system was taken off the table by the General Assembly's enactment of HB2198 during its session in early 2021.

HB2198 provides that, in a locality that that imposes district-based residency requirements for the election of members of the governing body or school board, such members must be elected only by the voters of each district and not by all of the voters in the City. This means that, even if the City prevails in the lawsuit, the city's residence districts must now become wards where only the citizens in each district can vote for their district representative.

Although HB2198 would not by its terms prevent the City from asking the General Assembly to eliminate the City's seven residence districts and make all 11 City Council and School Board positions at large seats, another law passed by the General Assembly in 2021 makes this alternative problematic. That law, known as the Virginia Voting Rights Act, contains a provision that prohibits at large election systems if those systems impair the ability of minority groups to either elect candidates of their choice or to influence the outcome of an election. This law is similar to, but broader than, the law relied upon by the plaintiffs in the Holloway case and would invite a future legal challenge to an all at large election system in Virginia Beach.

Appeal and Remedy Phase  

The City Council decided to appeal the district court's ruling. By appealing, the City sought further review of its arguments that the current system does not unlawfully dilute the voting rights of minority voters, that coalition claims are not legally viable under federal law, and that minority groups in Virginia Beach do not vote for the same political candidates and causes. This can be an expensive and time-consuming process and there is no guarantee of success. Additionally, even if the City is successful on appeal, the election system still must be materially different going forward because of the recent changes in state law (see HB2198 - 2021 General Assembly session).

At the same time, City Council continued to participate in the district court's remedial phase.  The City and the plaintiffs submitted proposed plans to the district court, and the district court appointed Dr. Bernard Grofman as Special Master to develop a remedial plan.  On October 26, 2021, Dr. Grofman submitted his proposed plan and on November 16, 2021, the City and the plaintiffs submitted their responses to the Special Master's report.  The court asked the City and the plaintiffs to reply to each other's responses by December 7, 2021, after which the court imposed the Special Master's 10 district ward system.

The City complied with the District Court’s ruling and continues to work with the Voter Registrar's Office on an implementation plan. These voter districts are also subject to pre-clearance approval by the Virginia Attorney General.  Simultaneously, at the direction of City Council, the City appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  

The City's amended opening brief was due January 14, 2022 and the plaintiff’s response brief was due February 7, 2022. Oral arguments were scheduled for March 8 - 11, 2022, and a ruling on the appeal was handed down on July 27, 2022.

A New System of Election: 10-1 
A 10-1 remedial plan was recommended by the Special Master, Dr. Bernard Grofman and adopted by the district court. The Special Master's proposed districts incorporate 2020 Census data and the new system includes:
  • Ten (10) council members elected from ten equally populated districts (often called wards), where each ward representative would be required to reside within the ward and would be elected only by the voters in that ward;          
  • One (1) mayor, who could reside anywhere in the city and would be elected at large
The wards were drawn in a manner that allows a sufficient minority-majority of three of the wards to facilitate the election of the minority groups' candidates of choice. 

For a deeper dive into the facts, explore the related documents on this webpage.

Outcome of the Appeal
On July 27, 2022, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a ruling stating that the district court erred in its decision and that the outcome of HB2198 rendered the plaintiff’s challenge moot. Due to this action by the General Assembly, the district court assessed an electoral system that no longer governs elections in Virginia Beach.

While the City is no longer bound to the remedy imposed by the district court, the timing of the ruling this close to the November election means that the City must use it for at least the 2022 election. City Council has to ability to pursue other election systems that comply with the provisions of HB2198. That decision, and what method or methods to be considered, will be up to a new City Council in 2023. Whatever action is taken will ultimately determine the next steps in the process.

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