Redistricting for US Representatives and WV Delegates Under Discussion

by Duane Nichols on July 30, 2021

West Virginia lawmakers prepare to draw the map that will determine their political futures

From the Article by Ian Karbal, Mountain State Spotlight, June 29, 2021

State lawmakers are set to begin the process of redrawing the lines that help determine who represents West Virginians in the statehouse and in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The process, known as redistricting, will be steered in the coming months by recently-named committees in the state Senate and House of Delegates, headed by Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, and Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, respectively. For the first time since the Great Depression era, Republicans will control the process with a majority in both chambers, as well as the governor’s office, which has the final sign-off.

And as West Virginia loses a seat in Congress, and moves from 67 delegate districts — some of which have multiple representatives — to 100 single-member districts in the state Legislature, this year’s redistricting could be particularly consequential.

Experts have warned for decades that allowing lawmakers to decide the lines of their own districts can lead to gerrymandering — when politicians decide on the final district maps to favor themselves or their party — and disempower voters.

While gerrymandering along racial lines is strictly outlawed by the federal Voting Rights Act, a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that gerrymandering along partisan lines was beyond the scope of the court to intervene.

“Gerrymandering is anti-democratic,” said Kenneth Martis, professor emeritus at West Virginia University and an expert in political geography. “I think both conservative and liberal people want fair and democratic elections.”

But the window is closing on any possibility of a gerrymander-free redistricting this year.

Democrats in Congress sought to make the redistricting process more independent and remove lawmakers from having direct power over the boundaries of their own districts, but it was stalled by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who refused to support a bill that would pass on strictly partisan lines. Manchin recently announced support for a pared-down voting rights compromise bill that would still strip redistricting powers from legislators, but it is still unlikely to become law over Republican opposition unless Manchin also supports filibuster reform, which would let Democrats pass the bill without any Republican votes.

In effect, Manchin’s delays have likely ensured lines drawn by lawmakers will dominate West Virginia politics for at least the next decade.

How does redistricting work? — If nothing changes at the federal level, the state Senate president and the House of Delegates speaker have appointed two bipartisan committees of legislators, one for each legislative body. The partisan makeup of the committees roughly reflects the makeup of the Legislature, which means there will be a big Republican majority in each.

The committees will hold public meetings, and must ultimately agree by majority vote to pass the newly-drawn map to Governor Jim Justice for approval.

Redistricting has always been a political process, subject to partisan maneuvering and backroom deals. But Trump says this year’s process will be fair and transparent. He hopes to hold as many public hearings across the state as possible to get voter input on the potential boundaries of their districts. This, he says, will help ensure that voters feel members of their district share a situational and political reality.

“It would be a question of ‘what do people want their districts to be configured as,’” Trump said. “Those kinds of things could be ‘our district now is too big,’ or ‘our senator or delegate is too far away from where we live,’ or it could be ‘we’re lumped in with a group of people that we don’t think we have much in common with.’”

Though as Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, learned when she served on two previous redistricting committees under a Democratic majority, “the meetings are kind of a formality.

“My guess is [Republican lawmakers] will work with their caucus to see what they want their districts to look like, and those meetings will be behind closed doors,” Fleischauer said

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