A federal court ruled the election system in Virginia Beach is illegal under the Voting Rights Act.

Virginia Beach residents Latasha Holloway and Georgia Allen, who are both Black, filed a lawsuit in 2017, arguing that the city’s election process dilutes minority votes. And on Wednesday a judge agreed.  

Seven of the city’s 11 council members represent, and must live in, specific districts, but voters throughout the city get to vote in all of these races. 

U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson said Virginia Beach cannot use this system in any future elections. In the 135-page order, he also said the city cannot adopt any other policies or procedures that dilute minority participation in the electoral process.    

The Campaign Legal Center, which represented the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against the city, said Wednesday’s ruling was the result of a “decadeslong process” of communities of color advocating for a change to the at-large district model.  

“Because voting is racially polarized -- white voters as a group and communities of color as a group usually prefer different candidates -- the at-large method of election regularly functioned to deprive almost one-third of the city’s voting age population from electing candidates of their choice to any of the eleven seats on the city council,” the CLC said in a statement.

To prove their case, the plaintiffs demonstrated that candidates supported by minority voters often lost elections in Virginia Beach when white voters were unified in their support of a different candidate. 

Ruth Greenwood, the co-director of voting rights and redistricting at the CLC, said she was surprised Virginia Beach made it this long without having to change its election system.   

"This ruling was a long time coming," she said. "This means that people of color in Virginia Beach [who] have been historically shut out of being able to elect their candidate to the city council will finally get to do so."  

Virginia Beach has used this voting system since 1966 and in that time has elected only six non-white candidates. Sabrina Wooten recently became the first Black council member to be reelected. 

“We have received and are digesting the Court’s opinion,” a city spokesperson told WHRO in an email, adding that the city attorney will brief the council in a closed door session on Tuesday.

A new state law will also mandate changes to local elections in Virginia Beach. Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill last month that requires localities with district-based systems to only allow residents of those districts to vote for their representatives.  

Some local officials said the General Assembly did not seek input from the Virginia Beach city council before advancing the legislation.

Republican state Sen. Bill DeSteph wanted to change the bill to require localities hold a referendum to change their electoral system. His suggested change wasn't adopted.

In light of the new state law, attorneys for Virginia Beach tried to have the legal case dismissed as moot, but the judge declined the request.

Greenwood said the court order will guarantee that, when the city adopts a new election system, it protects the rights of minority voters. 

The state law prohibits this unique type of at-large voting, "but it doesn't necessarily require the enactment of a plan that ensures minority representation for communities of color," Greenwood said.

She says that Virginia Beach could, hypothetically, comply with the new law by eliminating the residency requirement and simply have 11 completely at-large districts.

"But that would fall foul of the federal Voting Rights Act," Greenwood explained. She hopes the city will work closely with the community to develop a new system that passes legal muster.

Correction: The second plaintiff in the Virginia Beach voting districts case is Georgia F. Allen.