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Piecing Together The District Puzzle

Hello, October. The leaves are falling, the pumpkins are on display, and the Halloween costumes are being made. Also, our lawmakers have their colored pencils out, ready to draw new congressional and legislative district boundaries.

The state Senate has the easy job, unless they choose to make it more complicated. Simply tweak some boundaries where the population has grown and shrunk. They could finally give Monongalia County its own state senator instead of being split between three different districts.

If the Senate wanted to go bold, they could even increase or decrease senatorial districts altogether. By law and constitution, they can’t have less than 12 districts. They have 17 now, so they could increase (but why would you do that if the population is shrinking?) or decrease to between 12 and 16 districts. I doubt you’ll see this happen, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

As I wrote about this weekend, the House of Delegates has somewhat of a harder lift, going from 67 districts with some having multiple members to 100 single-member districts. There was an effort to create single-member districts after the 2010 Census, but it obviously didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t until 2018 when the Legislature passed a law requiring single-member districts.

Doing so won’t change the number of lawmakers. You’ll still have 100 members. The goal of single-member districts is to ensure that communities across the state have someone from within their community representing them. Many of the multi-member districts include lawmakers who live in the larger cities, but often people in the rural parts of those districts are neglected because of that.

House Redistricting Committee Chairman Gary Howell, R-Mineral, told me that most of the people in the regional and virtual public hearings held around the state were happy to have single-member districts. They see this as a chance to have representatives from their area versus representatives from the cities who only occasionally come to their area.

But inevitably, whatever single-member district map is going to result in some current lawmakers likely not coming back after the 2022 elections. Howell said there were at least 10 pairs of lawmakers who reside in the same Census block, meaning if either wants to stay in the House, they’ll have to primary each other.

An example of this is the current 10th District, which is represented by Republicans Vernon Criss, John Kelly and Roger Conley. In one of the new districts in the draft delegate redistricting plan, Howell told me Criss and Kelly live in the same district. Either someone will need to retire, run for a different office or challenge the other for the seat.

Proposed maps will likely have the same effect on other smaller districts. For example, Democrat Lisa Zukoff and Republican Charles Reynolds represent the 4th District, which includes all of Marshall County and a portion of Ohio County. Under the current draft map, the northern part of Marshall would become its own district, with the remainder of Marshall and the top of Wetzel County becoming another district.

I don’t know the physical addresses where lawmakers live, but it does seem to me like that could potentially make Zukoff and Dave Pethel, D-Wetzel, have to face off against each other in 2022 assuming the proposed lines stay the same.

“Gerrymandering – manipulating the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class. Was the definition met?” asked Zukoff in a tweet Friday.

Good question. During a briefing with the House Redistricting Committee Thursday, the legal counsel for House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has set a high bar for proving political gerrymandering. It certainly looks like Republicans could be just as affected by the new boundaries as certain Democratic lawmakers.

Lawmakers have time between now and a redistricting special session likely to be called during the week of Oct. 10 coinciding with legislative interim meetings. The public also has time to head over to the West Virginia Legislature’s website to comment on the proposed maps.

I’ve been alluding to the issues lawmakers face with congressional redistricting. It’s just not as simple as either drawing a line vertically or horizontally. During last week’s Senate Redistricting Committee, the issue became one centered on what to do when it comes to the state’s fastest growing regions.

You’ve heard a lot of the Eastern Panhandle and the Morgantown/Monongalia County area. Howell reminded me that Putnam County -sandwiched in between Cabell and Kanawha counties – is also a growth area. It’s the only growth area in Southern West Virginia, due to being a bedroom community and commuter area for businesses in Charleston and Huntington. Think of it as the Long Island of West Virginia.

Sens. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, and Michael Woelfel, D-Cabell, don’t want to see a congressional map that splits up the Kanawha-Putnam-Cabell metro area into one of the two new congressional districts. I am not sure how one makes a map that keeps the Morgantown/Monongalia County and Eastern Panhandle areas separate without at least scooping up Kanawha and Putnam counties.

It’s almost like performing surgery. Lawmakers will need a steady hand as they begin carving up the state.

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