Holloway vs. City of Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach residents Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen are asking 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.   
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, Centerville, Kempsville, Lynnhaven, Princess Anne, Rose Hall and Beach. 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 litigation 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 should fail as a matter of law and fact. The City asserted that plaintiffs cannot show, under existing census 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 ("a coalition claim") and (2) all three minorities 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 should are legally permissible and found that the minority groups are politically cohesive. The court has prohibited the City from using the historical system in any future elections and will be scheduling a future hearing to decide what the future election system will be. Finally, the court awarded the Plaintiff's their attorney fees and costs in an amount also to be determined at a later hearing.  

Other Recent Developments: Changes in State Law   

While defending the Holloway case through trial, the City believed that by prevailing in the case 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 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 elections 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 likely prevent an all at large election system in Virginia Beach.

What's Next: Appeal or Settle  

In light of the federal court ruling and the changes in state law, the City is contemplating next steps.

One option is to appeal the court's ruling. By appealing, the City could seek 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 issues. This would be an expensive and time-consuming process with no guarantee of success. Additionally, even if the City is successful on appeal, the election system still must be materially different going forward as a result of the recent changes in state law.

A second option, and one that the City Council will formally consider in June, is to settle the federal lawsuit on terms that would both remedy the federal voting rights violation found by the federal court and be compliant with the newly enacted state laws. A summary of the proposed settlement terms is below. These terms were briefed to the City Council and public in open session on May 11, 2021.  The briefing document may be found here. 

Possible Settlement Terms 

A New System of Election: 7-3-1

The settlement would involve adopting a new "7-3-1 election system," which would include:

  • seven (7) council members elected from seven 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;           
  • three (3) council members elected from three equally populated super wards, where each representative would be required to live in the super ward and would be elected only by the voters in each super ward;
  • one (1) mayor, who could reside anywhere in the city and would be elected at large

The wards and super wards would be drawn in a manner to allow minority groups to attain a sufficient majority in three of the wards or super wards to facilitate the election of the minority groups' candidates of choice. It is anticipated that maps depicting these wards and super wards, prepared using 2015-2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data, would be available for public review prior to the public hearing on June 8, 2021. ACS uses surveys in between the decennial census counts to determine key demographics of communities throughout the United States, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. However, some revisions to the maps will likely be necessary after final census data is received this fall.

As part of the settlement, the plaintiffs would receive $1.6 million in payment of the attorney fees and costs awarded by the federal court in the March 31 Order. This amount constitutes a substantial reduction from the $3.88 million plaintiffs advise they have accrued to date.

Additional public briefings are planned and a public hearing will take place on June 8, 2021 at the Council Chamber in Suite 5 of the Virginia Beach Convention Center.  The Council will vote on whether to proceed with the settlement during the City Council meeting on June 15, 2021. 

Note: If the Council votes to proceed with the settlement, it must still be approved by the federal district court.

Effect of Settlement Proposal on Appeal

If the City Council votes not to pursue the settlement or the parties cannot agree on the maps creating the seven wards and three super wards or the federal court does not approve the settlement, the City will then have the right to immediately appeal the federal court ruling. 

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