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Reshuffle Coming in West Virginia House of Delegates

Photos Courtesy W.Va. Legislative Photography House Redistricting Committee Chairman Gary Howell, R-Mineral, leads the first organization meeting Thursday.

CHARLESTON — While lawmakers have to split the proverbial baby in dividing West Virginia into two congressional districts, they also must start drawing up new boundaries for the West Virginia Legislature.

Thirty-four senators represent 17 senatorial districts with two members per district. A hundred delegates represent 67 delegate districts. Just like congressional redistricting, legislative redistricting is done every 10 years when the U.S. Census releases its decennial data.

West Virginia’s population dropped by 3.1%, from 1.85 million in 2010 to 1.79 million in 2020. Lawmakers won’t just have to deal with population loss but also shifts in population.

Growth areas of the state include the Morgantown/Monongalia County area, the Eastern Panhandle and Putnam County along I-64 between Huntington and Charleston.

While the Senate’s job will involve adjusting boundaries, members of the House of Delegates will have to consider changing from a handful of multi-member districts to 100 single-member districts.

The House Redistricting Committee got its first look at what those districts could look like during its first organizational meeting on Thursday at the Capitol.

The first draft map was based in part on feedback from 12 regional public meetings and three virtual public meetings held by the Joint Committee on Redistricting since July.

House Redistricting Committee members receive a birds-eye view of what a new House of Delegates map could look like with 100 single-member districts.

“In 2018, House Bill 4002 requires a big change for the House of Delegates in the form of single-member districts,” said Jeff Billings, chief of staff to House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. “We’re dealing with population loss, but we also have population shifts as well. We have kept many of the current district lines where they make sense in the Census numbers and in day-to-day practice.”

House Speaker Pro Tempore Gary Howell, R-Mineral, is the chairman of the House Redistricting Committee and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Redistricting. Speaking after Thursday’s meeting, Howell said much of the feedback from the public supported moving to single-member districts.

“As we toured the state on our listening tour, we heard a lot of people say they liked the idea of single-member districts,” Howell said. “I was kind of surprised that we got a lot of that from the current multi-member districts. They welcomed the idea of single-member districts. They said, ‘We will finally elect someone who’s most likely from our area and can concentrate their efforts on us.'”

Of the current 67 House districts, 11 are two-member districts, six are three-member districts, two are four-member districts and one is a five-member district in the Morgantown area.

All of those multi-member districts have to be split into single-member districts. In some cases, that could put current members of the House, even those of the same political party, into the same new single-member district, requiring a primary.

“We knew that probably would happen,” Howell said. “When we came up with this map, we said ‘don’t look at where anybody lives.’ Let’s not do that. You always have a general idea, but let’s not look at that specifically. Let’s draw them according to what the people have told us. And if it works out, we’re probably not going to put that many people together in the same district.”

Howell said there were probably 10 pairs of delegates who were likely within one district. It is likely members will offer alternative map proposals for the public to review before a special session expected to be called the week of Oct. 10.

The new draft district map also renumbers the districts. Instead of starting in the Northern Panhandle with District 1, District 1 would start in McDowell County and end at the top of the Northern Panhandle with District 100. Map makers also took into account communities of interest which consist of groups of any size with similar interests, concerns, and values.

“We’ve taken care to keep counties and municipalities as whole as possible where it’s been requested,” Billings said. “And you’ll see a few instances when the opposite was asked of us. We also tried to be mindful of the communities of interest as much as possible. That could be geographical, historical, economic, socioeconomic, and even media markets, school districts, and transportation patterns.”

Much like congressional and state Senate districts, delegate districts are required by law and constitution to be as close to equal in population as possible. However, as long as the maximum population deviation between the largest and smallest district is less than 10%, courts have determined that such redistricting maps comply with the federal one-person-one-vote rule.

“As far as legislative redistricting, there are also requirements of equal representation and near-equal population for districts,” said Dan Greear, counsel for the House Speaker’s Office. “However, there is a different standard when drawing state and local districts. Jurisdictions are allowed to deviate somewhat from perfect population equality to accommodate traditional districting objectives. Among them, preserving the integrity of political subdivisions, maintaining communities of interest and creating geographic compactness.”

As a result, this has sometimes meant carving up counties like a cake.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, used the example of Putnam County in a recent op-ed. While not on the House Redistricting Committee, Fleischauer was a member of the Joint Redistricting Committee for 2000 and 2010, as well as serving as the chair of the House Committee on Constitutional Revision for 18 years.

“After the 2010 census, (Putnam County’s) population would have justified three delegates by itself, all within the boundaries of the county,” Fleischauer said. “Instead, Putnam County was divided into five delegate districts (the 13th, 14th, 15th, 22nd & 38th), spanning seven counties.

“More than most states, West Virginians identify themselves as being residents of a particular county, rather than as residents of cities or towns,” Fleischauer said. “The state constitutional requirements that districts should respect counties conform to this view.”

Fleischauer also said sticking with county boundaries for delegate districts could help limit the possibility of political gerrymandering, where lawmakers draw the boundaries in such a way to benefit themselves in future elections.

“For example, if county lines are ignored, district lines could be drawn placing an incumbent’s opponent in a district that includes large parts of another county where party registration is different, making it harder for the opponent to win,” Fleischauer said. “In completing its redistricting duties, the West Virginia Legislature must adhere to mandatory language in our state constitution relating to counties, or explain fully, in writing, why any deviation from those rules is necessary.

Greear, during his explanation of the state and U.S. constitutional and legal requirements for redistricting, disagreed with Fleischauer’s assessment.

“The West Virginia Supreme Court (of Appeals) indicated that splitting county boundaries was not, per se, unconstitutional under our constitutional provisions,” Greear said. “(The Supreme Court) also had a brief discussion of partisan gerrymandering cases. It made clear there would be a very high burden to overcome to present a partisan gerrymandering case in state court.”

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