Change Coming to Virginia Beach Politics

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

A recent federal court decision could fundamentally change the  politics of Virginia Beach, the Commonwealth’s largest city.

Some background is needed first. Virginia Beach has an unusual method of electing its council. All 11 members of the council are elected by all the voters in the city. However, seven of the council members must live in the district they represent, while three members and the mayor are truly at-large, meaning they can live anywhere in the city. For example, Mary Doe may run for council as the member from District 7, which includes Sandbridge where she lives, but she must get a majority of the citywide votes for the seat.

The electoral arrangement has been in place since 1966  It has its origins in the conditions established for the consolidation of the small city of Virginia Beach and the large county of Princess Anne in 1963.

The ramifications of the system are evident. The chances of a sizable minority population in the city obtaining representation on the council, even if they constitute a majority in one or two districts, are diminished.  In 2017, some residents of Virginia Beach filed suit in federal court, claiming that the Virginia Beach electoral system violated the Voting Rights Act.

The 2021 General Assembly enacted legislation that would end the policy of members representing a district being elected at-large. The fact that the legislature passed this legislation is interesting in and of itself. There is a general policy that the legislature will not consider bills regarding matters that are the subject of litigation. However, this is one of those “elastic” policies that parties have abused over many years. It has been used to avoid potentially politically unpopular votes on legislation. But, when the policy proves inconvenient to a party desiring a particular bill, it is ignored. Such was the case with this legislation. The Democrats wanted it and it passed on a straight party-line vote in both houses.

Although clearly aimed at Virginia Beach, the legislation was framed as general law, prohibiting any locality, in which there were district or ward residency requirements for members of the governing body, from providing for election of those members at-large. Even with this change, there were some advocates who worried that the city would later ask the General Assembly for a change to its charter to convert all council seats to an at-large basis.

That latter fear was eliminated with the decision of the federal court at the end of March on the suit that had been filed. Acknowledging that the Supreme Court had ruled that at-large districts are not illegal per se, the district court set out the Supreme Court’s three-pronged test for determining whether an at-large system violates the Voting Rights Act:

  1. The minority group must demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district;
  2. The minority group must show that it is politically cohesive; and
  3. The minority must demonstrate that the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.

If those preconditions are met, the court must then determine under the “totality of the circumstances” whether there has been a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

In a lengthy (135 pages) opinion considering the evidence in light of these tests, the district court concluded that “by a preponderance of the evidence, the plaintiffs have demonstrated that the at-large system of elections for the Virginia Beach City Council denies Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians equal access to the electoral and political process, in contravention of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”  ccordingly, the court declared the at-large method of election “illegal” and not to be enforced in future elections.

At a later date, the court will issue an order, after hearing arguments from each side, setting forth remedies.

My Soapbox

Critics have long accused the Virginia Beach city council of cronyism. (See this post of Kerry Dougherty.) This decision should come as good news to them because it could bring different perspectives to the council. Of course, the development interests could coopt council members from minority districts, as well. It will be interesting to see if this decision makes a substantial difference in Virginia Beach politics.

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23 responses to “Change Coming to Virginia Beach Politics”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Yet another truly Virginia public policy blog post vice more incessant culture war blather.


  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Pretty interesting issue. Are at large districts legitimate? If you look across Virginia, how many jurisdictions have at-large BOS?

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Reportedly, Portsmouth and Chesapeake have at-large elections. I don’t if any others do. Legitimate? Depends on your viewpoint. Legal? It would depend on a court’s finding based on the tests laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Would this apply to school boards as well? There are a number of Virginia school boards that elect at large seats.

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          From the press reports, it seems that Va. Beach elects its school board in the same manner. However, the court decision seems to have been about only the city council and that is what the decision is applicable to. I don’t know if the principles applicable to the council apply to the council as well.

      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I wonder if it has anything to do — historically speaking — with these cities having annexed the counties within which they began?

    2. CJBova Avatar

      Since 1981, when Mathews was required “to provide equal representation based on population,” it has had at-large elections for Board of Supervisors and School Board because of our geography. As a peninsula on the Chesapeake and Mobjack Bays, with three rivers and a number of large creeks, there was no way to divide up our three precincts as “contiguous and compact areas with clearly defined and clearly observable boundaries.” Title 24.2-304.1 of the Code of Virginia.

      Here’s what our precincts look like:

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    This is one of those issues that many never really think about, take for granted etc but it’s about HOW to REPRESENT voters.

    For instance, we have two Senators “at large” but we have distinct Congressional districts ( as opposed to 7 “at large” Congressmen.

    Ditto at the State level. We have no real “at large” for the state except perhaps the Gov and AG..

    Then at the local level – Magisterial Districts ,where again, we don’t really have ALL “at large” but rather mostly district reps and one (maybe two – “at large).

    This can and does have an effect on how governance “works”.

    Where did these governance ideas come from? Who set them up? What were the choices and options?

    At one time, BR would have explored these issues… before CRT and “equity” and “woke” and all that ROT!

    1. CJBova Avatar

      Where did these governance ideas come from? Who set them up?
      Larry, start with the Constitution of Virginia.
      Then look at Code of Virginia Title 15.2 and Title 24.2.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Thanks Carol. Yes, I know they are codified. I was also interested in the concept behind them and what kind of thinking led to the specifics in the Code.

        For instance, is this kind of Governance common in other states also or not?

        And where did “compact and contiguous” come from to start with before it got formalized?

        Was our governance set up similar to England?

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          There is a whole set of Supreme Court decisions, starting with Baker v. Carr, the one-man, one-vote decision, that establishes the framework. That is based on the equal protection concept in the 14th amendment. The court decisions are supplemented by the federal Voting Rights Act. And, no, our governing structure is not similar to England.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            This ought to be right up James W alley!

            ” English landowners had insisted on meeting with their leaders for consultation in local matters ever since the MAGNA CARTA was signed in 1215. Virginia settlers expected that same right.

            Modeled after the English Parliament, the General Assembly was established in 1619. In 1643 it became a bicameral body, establishing the House of Burgesses as one of its two chambers. Members would meet at least once a year with their royal governor to decide local laws and determine local taxation.”


            The other question/observation is at the BOS level – is there a requirement that there be a BOS for every so many citizens, such that in bigger population counties there are many more BOS and in small population counties, many less?

          2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            No. The state Constitution stipulates that “county” means those counties that existed at the time the constitution was adopted. Each county, by law, regardless of population, has one board of supervisors.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            Yep. How many? Where did magisterial districts come from? Does each county have to have the same number of voters represented by a BOS – i.e. one-man-one-vote across Virginia no matter the size of the county or population?

            To me, these issues are at least somewhat related to “at-large”. Was “at large” a concept that was included in the original laws that formed BOS? Or was it a later addition? What justified at large?

            We take most of these things for granted now days but way back when – Virginia decided it would govern itself , someone, some body , came up with these concepts and codified them into law (Constitution?) – and we’ve had revisions and re-writes of laws/Constitution?

            The original Bacon’s Rebellion came about amid some of these governance issues, no?

          4. CJBova Avatar

            Did you have someone do your homework in school too? If you want to learn about the history of governance in Virginia, look it up. I know you have access to “The Most Convenient Wayes” because you’ve quoted from it. There’s information about magisterial districts there and how they functioned. Look up House of Burgesses. Read the state Constitution and Code of Virginia Title 15.2. Counties, Citites and Towns. In fact, start with 15.2-102 Definitions. Some of your answers are sitting right there. Title 24.2 will tell you all about election districts and precincts. Once you get the basics, then explore each point you want to know more about. Don’t ask us to boil down 400 years of Virginia governance history in a blog comment for you.

          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            Do you know? Not care,? Lazy also? 😄

  4. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    “Of course, the development interests could coopt council members from minority districts, as well.” Gee, Ya Think?? Is this a bit of breaking news or did the ruling get local coverage before this post? If this is the first airing for that ruling, more shame on the local MSM (there you go, Larry.)

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      It got coverage by the Virginian Pilot–that paper has kept up with the suit right along. I don’t remember seeing any reporting of it in the Richmond or Washington newspapers.

  5. tmtfairfax Avatar

    So why does Arlington County elect its members at large? The basic principle is the same – no discrete area of the county can be assured of representation.

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    All politics is local. All local politics is corruptible.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    “AT-Large” has a long and varied history. Some consider it worse than gerrymandering.

    1. tmtfairfax Avatar

      Some time ago, the then Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, bending to the real estate developers who were putting up some bucks, called for the election of some of the Fairfax County BoS members on an at-large basis, because local supervisors were too willing to listen to local constituents and, thus, were missing the bigger picture. At least they were honest.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I can see if ALL representatives are elected at large that it could suppress minority representation – in theory – at least.

        But if the area is divided up into districts and each one has an elected representative then what’s the impact of ADDING to that, one or two At-large as long as they have no more power or position than others – just votes? I guess, even then, someone could assert that on a split board, the At-large would be the swing votes for the majority.

        Wiki talks about how some states elected Congressional representative AT-large.

        Of course Senators and Governors are essentially elected AT Large… but they are clearly one-man-one-vote.

        I’d be curious to hear other views.

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