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 contend was 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). The City appealed the decision by the District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined in July 2022 that the lower court erred in its rulings. Due to the timing of the appellate court decision, the City previously implemented and is following the court-ordered 10-1 ward district system for the November 2022 elections.
Find Your District 
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 have historically been able to vote for all 11 members of the Council. The mayor and three Council members were elected and served “at large” (citywide) with no district residency requirements. The remaining seven representatives were 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 contended was a violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.  Specifically, they contended that the City's pre-2022 voting system diluted the voting strength of a coalition of Black, Hispanic and Asian minority groups. They asked the court to consider, among other things, imposing an election system with 10 single member districts. In such a system, only the voters residing in each district would be able to vote for the Council member from that district, and 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 contended that the plaintiffs' case fails as a matter of law and fact. The City contended that plaintiffs could not 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 district 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 violated 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 prohibited the City from using the historical system in any future elections and later made a determination of what specific election system would remedy the violation. 

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 eliminated by the 2021 General Assembly's enactment of HB2198.

HB2198 provided 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 new law meant that, even if the City prevailed in the lawsuit, the city's residence districts now become wards districts where only the citizens in each district may 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 makes at large election systems subject to challenge if those systems are alleged to impair the ability of minority groups to either elect candidates of their choice or 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 likely invite a future legal challenge to an all at-large election system in Virginia Beach.

A New System of Election: 10-1 
In December 2021, the federal district court imposed a 10-1 ward district plan upon the City.  This plan was recommended by the Special Master appointed by the court, Dr. Bernard Grofman. The plan imposed by the court incorporated 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 in the federal district court’s view would allow 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.

Appeal

The City Council appealed the federal district court's ruling.  By appealing, the City sought further review of its arguments that the pre-2022 system did not unlawfully dilute the voting rights of minority voters, that coalition claims are not legally viable under federal law, that minority groups in Virginia Beach do not vote for the same political candidates and causes, and that the case was mooted by the Virginia General Assembly’s passage of HB 2198 in 2021.  

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 decision finding that the federal district court had erred in its rulings and vacating the district court’s liability and remedial orders.  It based its decision upon the fact that HB2198 eliminated the City’s ability to have elections using residence districts, and that change in state law rendered the Holloway case moot. 

November 2022 Election 

Because the U.S. Court of Appeals decision vacating the federal district court’s rulings came in late July, 2022, there was insufficient time for the City to consider or pursue any changes to the 10-1 system (which had been ordered by the federal district court and previously implemented by the City) for the November 2022 City Council and School Board election.  Accordingly, the November 2022 election will take place using the 10-1 ward district system ordered by the federal district court, even though that order has been vacated. 

November 2024 Election & Beyond

The City anticipates there will be a public discussion in 2023 regarding what election system is best for the City going forward after the November 2022 election.  Once City Council receives public input, it will decide on which election system to pursue for the November 2024 election and will work with the local General Assembly delegation to accomplish any changes in the City’s Charter or state law that would be necessary to implement the preferred system.

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