Last week, there was a public hearing on adding a public referendum on district voting on the ballot. It was an engaging discussion as we heard from residents’ opinions about district voting. I believe that we need to hear from you, the voters, on a direct referendum vote during the General Election on November 3. This Tuesday, July 28th, the City Council will vote to decide whether or not to further engage the public on this issue. I believe we need to engage the public with an updated referendum during this upcoming election.
District voting is an electoral system in which only the voters in a specific district vote for their district representative on a city council. At-large voting is an electoral system in which there usually are no districts and all voters vote for candidates across the city.
In Virginia Beach:
the Mayor is elected at-large;
the three At-Large seats are elected at-large;
the district representatives for Lynnhaven, Kempsville, Beach, Bayside, Centerville, Rose Hall, and Princess Anne – are all elected at-large.
Why do we vote this way?
In 1966, the Virginia General Assembly amended the City Charter that the Virginia Beach City Council will have eleven members and seven districts, all elected at-large. Nearly thirty years later in 1994, a majority of voters supported a charter change that the seven districts be of roughly equal population and district members be elected within a district. However, in 1995, the General Assembly amended the City Charter for equal residence districts, but instead of adding district voting, there was a new referendum in 1996, in which a majority of voters opposed district voting for district members.
So why now?
We can agree that much has changed in Virginia Beach over the past 24 years. I believe we need a reliable, updated indicator of support for the issue from the public. District voting is an issue that I have raised at every City Council retreat since 2017 and has been a frequent topic of discussion since the early 1990s.
A referendum defers to the public’s wisdom to make an impactful decision, and we, as a City Council, should not interfere with that opportunity. As with any referendum that changes our City Charter, it is nonbinding, and the Virginia General Assembly must approve the measure. Any referendum would be ideally conducted during the election with the highest voter turnout – which would be the upcoming election on November 3, 2020. Additionally, having the referendum during the General Election would be ideal because it would align with our next ten-year redistricting following the 2020 Census.
Why do cities have district voting?
If a city is large enough to have districts, then district voting can be a more efficient way for representatives to listen to and be held accountable by the voters in their district. Virginia Beach has been the largest city in Virginia for decades and ranks as the 45th most populous city in the US. Of the top-100 most populated cities in the US, 87 other cities have district voting for their city councils. Our community comprises urban, suburban, and rural areas and is home to nearly 450,000 residents. Delegating responsibilities becomes necessary for cities with large populations to efficiently address the needs of diverse constituencies.
Geographical representation is an electoral model that predates the history of our country. Voters in Virginia do not vote for senators in other states. Voters in VA-2 do not vote for other congresspeople in other districts. Similarly, voters in the state senate and delegate districts do not vote for representatives in other areas.
What kind of district voting does the referendum specify?
Some city councils are elected entirely at-large and some have district representatives and at-large representatives. This referendum does not specify either system because it serves only to collect the insight of the voters and to get the public conversation going. We need a reliable, updated indicator of support on this issue, and there is no better way than to ask you, the voter, what you think.
As of now, the referendum language would be:
“Should the City Council adopt an ordinance requesting a change to the City Charter that would provide for the election of council members who represent each of the City’s seven residence districts only by voters who reside in the respective residence districts, as opposed to the current system of at-large voting?”
If you would like to speak in-person during the July 28th City Council meeting, please call the City Clerk’s office at 757-385-4303 to or emailing a ABarnes@vbgov.com prior to 5:30 PM on July 28th.