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NEWPORT NEWS TO IMPLEMENT NEW VOTING METHOD FOR ELECTING CITY COUNCIL UNDER AGREEMENT WITH THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Newport News, Virginia, will change the way it elects its seven member city council under an agreement reached today with the Justice Department. The agreement was filed today in U.S. District Court in Newport News together with a complaint charging that the city's method of election was unconstitutional and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is the first case brought by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act challenging a voting system in Virginia. The suit alleged that the at-large method, in which city residents vote for all seven council members, denied black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. It claimed that the city's racially polarized voting patterns allowed majority white voters in Newport News to defeat the candidates of choice of black voters who constitute 34% of the population. In the last four council elections in Newport News, only one black candidate was elected while several other black candidates, who received the strong support of black voters, were defeated. Both the Supreme Court and Congress have recognized that at-large elections tend to discriminate against minority voters in areas where voting is polarized along racial lines. Under the agreement, which must be approved by the federal court, the fourth largest city in Virginia will scrap its present system in favor of a one-year old system that has been used to elect members of its school board. The new system will divide the city into three districts and allow voters in each of the districts to elect two council members. The mayor will be elected at-large by the city's voters. One of the districts, situated in the southeastern part of the city, will have a substantial black voting age majority. "This nation must cast aside voting systems that exclude African Americans from the political process," said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval L. Patrick. "Today's settlement fulfills the promise of the Voting Rights Act by providing minority voters with an equal opportunity to participate in Newport News city politics." The agreement requires the city to hold a special election in May 1996, in which voters in the majority black district will be able to vote for their two representatives, and voters throughout the city will be able to vote for mayor. The suit asserted that blacks have suffered from a history of discrimination in voting and other areas and continue to suffer the effects of such discrimination. In July a group of black voters in Newport News filed suit raising similar claims. Under the agreement, that suit would be consolidated with the one filed by the Justice Department and resolved. # # # 94-613