Redistricting will have big effect on W.Va. lawmakers

Ian Karbal
Mountain State Spotlight
The State Capitol of West Virginia on a sunny day.

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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.

As a member of the state’s largest multi-delegate district, with five delegates representing 93,000 residents, Fleischauer is particularly concerned that she will be a target of efforts to unseat incumbent Democrats in her county. Under the current system, multiple delegates run on the same ticket, with the top contenders advancing. In the next election, those districts will be split, potentially pitting sitting delegates against one another. 

“One of the things that we expect the Republicans to do is make us run against each other,” Fleischauer said. “Draw the boundaries of these single-member districts so that it will minimize the number of Democrats elected from Monongalia County.” 

John Overington, a Republican in Berkeley County, and the longest serving delegate at the time he left office in January 2019, was the lead sponsor on a 2018 bill to move from multi-member districts to single-member. It was something he’d been trying to accomplish practically since his first election.

“If you’re voting in smaller districts, you can get to know the [representatives], and there’s a greater accountability,” Overington said. In large, multi-member districts, he said, “people didn’t know half the people who were on the ballot.”

For now, West Virginia is one of 10 states that has multi-member districts. The switch to a single-member system is one that has, historically, received bipartisan support in various states across the country. Since the 1950’s, 29 states controlled by both parties have moved to switch from multi-member to single-member districts.

Republicans this year will also be in the tricky position of deciding new federal congressional district lines, and winnowing the state’s current three U.S. House of Representatives seats down to two. With three Republicans — David McKinley, Carol Miller and Alex Mooney — in the U.S. House, the state’s GOP-dominated redistricting committee will decide which two representatives will share a district, and perhaps face each other in a Republican primary.

The last time West Virginia lost a seat in Congress was after the 1990 census. Democrats, who controlled all three branches of state government, had to eliminate one of four federal congressional districts, all held by incumbents in their own party. In a series of political maneuvers and backroom discussions, state party leadership decided that then-Rep. Harley Staggers Jr. was the weakest link.

“They carved up his district,” said Martis, the WVU professor. “They made this really funny thing that we now have as the 2nd Congressional District, stretching from the Eastern Panhandle to the Ohio border. They kind of gerrymandered him.” 

Staggers was pitted against another incumbent Democrat, Alan Mollohan, the then-chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee. Staggers lost the primary, and Mollohan ran unopposed for the seat in the general election. 

A partisan process

When the Jefferson County Commission challenged the constitutionality of West Virginia’s federal congressional map in a lawsuit following the 2011 redistricting, Martis served as an expert witness. Ultimately, the court declared the boundaries legal.

But there has been a conversation for years about making the redistricting process less partisan. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, more than 20 states employ independent, nonpartisan or bipartisan committees to oversee or advise lawmakers on redistricting, taking the power out of the hands of legislatures. And the movement to adopt them has picked up steam in the past decade among bipartisan groups of voters, as both Republicans and Democrats have been responsible for some egregious cases of gerrymandering across the country.

In West Virginia, both Republicans and Democrats have introduced bills to move the redistricting process to an independent commission. Not surprisingly, the idea is popular among Republicans when Democrats are in power and vice versa, and all the efforts have failed.

One such bill was put forward by Overington and two other Republicans following Democrat-led redistricting in 2011. In an opinion piece written for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Overington wrote, “I suspect there will be snake oil salesmen trying to defend the product or saying that if the Republicans were in power they would be doing the same thing. However, on the Republican side many of us have advocated redistricting being done by an independent board that does not know where incumbents live.”

Asked last week if he would still be in favor of an independent commission on redistricting, Overington said “no.”

“You introduce bills that you think will be an advantage to you,” he said. “We all would have been in favor of that when we were in the minority.”

In January, Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of neighboring Maryland, created an independent commission on redistricting by executive order. It’s a move which Justice could theoretically replicate in time for the 2022 election. It’s notable, however, that both houses of the Maryland legislature are controlled by Democrats, and that Maryland has been labeled one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.

Overington also said that in West Virginia, he didn’t believe Republicans would gerrymander as much as Democrats in the past, but with a caveat. “I’m sure that it will occur. It’s just human nature to try to have a district that is favorable to you for political reasons. If you’re doing your job you know the people who are out to get you and out to defeat you. There’s the natural temptation to try to make sure those people aren’t in your district.”

Fleischauer, for her part, has flipped from opposing to supporting an independent redistricting commission since Republicans won a majority in the statehouse. “I think I’ve finally realized that that’s more logical,” she said. “That the system we have is really, really subject to mischief.”

Reach reporter Ian Karbal at iankarbal@mountainstatespotlight.org