Who Represents Me? Virginia House Bill Would Create Voting Districts

A man casts his ballot at an early voting center at the University of the District of Columbia on October 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

By Amie Knowles

January 22, 2021

Cities and counties that currently elect candidates “at-large” would have the option to create voting districts or wards.

RICHMOND-If you live in a specific city ward or district, shouldn’t the person representing you be from the same area? Can at-large candidates represent better than those from voting districts? Those questions sparked debate Wednesday, as Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler spoke to the General Assembly’s Voting Rights subcommittee.

Convirs-Fowler expressed a need not for a new law, but for an adjustment to existing legislation. HB 2198 would create changes on the local, rather than the state level.

“This bill addresses voting systems in the Commonwealth to better define how they are implemented,” Convirs-Fowler said. “This bill requires localities to have a residency requirement for candidates of a city council, so a residency requirement for districts or wards.”

In order to vote for a city council candidate or school board official, the voter must live in the same district or ward as their elected representative. The bill serves as a way to set boundaries in certain circumstances.

“This piece of legislation aims to have localities with district voting – or a combination of at-large and district systems – to implement that only those qualified voters in that district [elect a candidate],” Convirs-Fowler said. “It is not meant to ban at-large voting. Localities can still do at-large. They can still do districts. They can still do a combination. But if you’re using any type of ward or district system, residency-based, you need to make sure only the qualified voters in that district [cast a ballot]. You can’t vote for a representative that you don’t live in their district.”

A clarification on the books

The bill clarifies existing law, Convirs-Fowler noted.

“You can have district voting. You can have the district ward voting. Or you can have a combination of at-large and district,” Convirs-Fowler said. “But if you have districts, only the voters in that district can vote for that representative.”

Adding the clarification to the law helps ensure that voters have a person representing them that they chose, not one chosen for their district by popular vote in a city or county-wide situation.

“The issue is that at-large systems disenfranchise voters when the entire locality is voting for representatives in specific districts,” Convirs-Fowler said.

RELATED: Amendment Would Expand Voting Rights

Pressing for Voting Districts

Del. Nick Rush asked whether or not the City of Virginia Beach weighed in on the proposal. He suggested that the bill could impact that area, citing an article he recently read.

“I would say that the issue was flagged because this is the system that Virginia Beach has in place. So that’s how I became aware of the issue,” Convirs-Fowler said. “I’m not sure if any other localities do this, but it would appear that there is a loophole that allows for a different system of voting than a different system of residency requirements for voters that doesn’t coincide with how any of the other legislation is written.”

The delegates were referring to some legal battles in Virginia Beach. Some voters there had requested a referendum, to have the option of changing how the city chooses council candidates. Currently, Virginia Beach elects council members by at-large voting, meaning the city majority picks each one. Some residents wanted the option of districts, so they could guarantee their area’s concerns would be represented on council.

Public comment

Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, expressed support for the legislation.

“Currently in some localities, as Del. Convirs-Fowler mentioned in Virginia Beach, essentially the same majority of voters can decide the results for every council seat, even if those voters don’t live in the same district as that representative of that district,” Nguyen said. “So people who live in the district, we believe, should have a fair chance to elect the candidate of their choice – someone who will advocate for their needs at the local government [level].”

Holly Edwards, a Virginia Beach resident, also spoke in favor of the bill. Edwards revealed that she grew up in a small Ohio town 11 square miles with approximately 30,000 residents.

“In that small town, our council was broken into a ward system, where only residents of the ward voted for their elected officials,” Edwards said. “They understood that the needs of the factory workers at the east end were not the same as the doctors living on the hilltop. They understood that elected officials needed to be a true representation of their community in order to properly serve them.”

Edwards expressed that when she moved to Virginia Beach, the voting practices surprised her.

“A council member can lose the popular vote in the district they are elected to represent, yet still be elected by the remainder of the city,” Edwards said. “How does this provide proper representation of the needs of our communities, particularly minority communities? It just doesn’t.”

The subcommittee unanimously recommended reporting the bill. It now moves on to the full elections committee for a vote. If the bill gets approved there, the full Virginia House will vote on it later this month.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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