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Single-Delegate Districts a Win

Later this month, the Legislature will adopt 100 single-delegate districts in the West Virginia House of Delegates. For me this has been a long, over three-decades goal that started in 1991. Soon after being elected in 1984, I observed that Kanawha County was one large multi-member district with all 12 members together representing this largest county. Many parts of the county did not have a delegate from their area. When the voters went to the polls, they had 24 candidates on their ballot with 12 to be elected. Most of the voters did not know all 24 or even 12.

During the 1970s and 1980s some southern states used the multi-member district practice as a way to disenfranchise minority voters, thereby electing all white representatives. Several white districts would combine with a minority district to create a district that still had a white majority. We in West Virginia were considered a southern state in some ways.

In the 1991 redistricting I joined with Harrison County Delegate Floyd Fullen, who was from a four-member district, to investigate if this practice was being done in West Virginia. I had a sister who worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and we wanted to see if this was a problem in West Virginia.

The House Redistricting Chair then was Ernie Moore, a Black delegate from McDowell County. In analyzing this data from across the state, no geographical area was found that would constitute a minority district. However, part of Charleston was considered as a “minority influence” area. That led in 1991 to the 12-member Kanawha County district being separated into three districts: a one-member district, a four-member district and a seven-member district. The state went from 40 districts to 56 districts that year. In each 10-year redistricting cycle since then more multi-member districts were divided, so that now this year we are going from 67 to 100.

The last bill I got passed in 2018 before retiring was HB 2002 to create these 100 single-delegate districts. There are many benefits from this legislation. The accountability in those large districts was not always there.

The cost of campaigning in multi-member districts was also much more expensive. It often meant that the candidate who spent the most money got elected.

Going door-to-door and getting to know your constituents personally and them getting to know you becomes a much better and easier process in single-delegate districts since the territory is much smaller.

For multi-member districts, knowing the voting record of many delegates is much harder vs. just having one to follow and with whom to communicate.

At the same time the voters will have one delegate who is directly accountable to them. The voters will be able to better know their own representative. And as I did and others copied, the delegate could mail a newsletter to each voter with a Town Hall meeting schedule, a Citizens’ Poll on issues that might come up during the 60-day legislative session. They can also report on past legislative bills, thereby increasing communication and improving representation.

This is something we in the Eastern Panhandle have already been following since 1981.

Although some may like the old multi-member district system, especially if it helped in their own personal election, this is truly a win-win for the public and the representative form of government. I commend the legislative leadership for following HB 2002.

John Overington of Martinsburg retired from the West Virginia House of Delegates in 2019 after a 34-year political and served in the House during the three previous redistricting cycles

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