MSS: Single-member legislative districts help small communities. But in WV, they could lead to unfairly-drawn districts

Picture attached: Members of the Legislature's Joint Redistricting Committee held a meeting in Morgantown on Thursday, August 12, 2021. / Photo by Ian Karbal.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter.

By Ian Karbal, Mountain State Spotlight

MORGANTOWN — Monongalia County had the highest turnout yet for the state’s redistricting committee, which has held similar hearings in counties across the state. Around 50 citizens gathered Thursday, sitting in rows of blue and gold chairs. They were joined by over a dozen members of the Legislature, mostly members of the joint redistricting committee, who were there to listen.

One by one, constituents stood to speak, and most were clear and consistent on one point: they’re tired of living in a multi-member district. In Monongalia County, five delegates represent House District 51, a populous and spread-out area that covers Morgantown and a lot of surrounding areas. But come 2022, that will change.

“We have all these people running for office in one big area,” said Cindy Chambers, who’s lived in Morgantown for 35 years. “We’re so different from Blacksville, to South Park, to Suncrest, to Cheat Lake. People have different interests. They have different things that they want to have done.”

A 2018 state law banning multi-member districts makes the coming redistricting process the most significant in decades. West Virginia has 20 multi-member districts; as part of the redistricting process, lawmakers will carve them up into smaller areas, each represented by one delegate. 

While single-member districts have generally been supported by voting rights advocates who say they more accurately represent smaller communities, West Virginia’s switch has raised alarms among Democrats who have strong representation in multi-member districts, and nonpartisan watchdogs who fear the move will lead to partisan gerrymandering.

Here, lawmakers draw the maps that determine their own political futures, and for the first time in 80 years, Republicans will control that process. And the largest multi-member districts they’ll be carving up are in the Democratic strongholds of Monongalia and Kanawha counties.

“For better or worse, whoever controls the line drawing, and this is usually true, will draw the lines in their favor,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, the senior legal strategist at the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project. “And if there’s more lines, there’s more chances to draw favorable lines.”

The argument against multi-member districts

Podowitz-Thomas says historically, multi-member districts have been used to disenfranchise voters along racial and partisan lines. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down multiple maps where multi-member districts were used to “submerge” Black votes.

For example, in 1973, the Supreme Court struck down parts of a Texas redistricting map where they found multi-member districts were being used to dilute the state’s Black vote. They found that Hispanic and Black neighborhoods in Bexar and Dallas counties, respectively, were being lumped in with white communities that could outvote them. 

Where, in Bexar, if there were single member districts, you would likely have one Hispanic representative and two white representatives, a larger three-member district was electing three white representatives.

Because of the Voting Rights Act, which ensures equal representation for non-white communities, and legal challenges like in Texas, Podowitz-Thomas said states that still use multi-member districts “tend to be places that don’t have a big minority population,” like West Virginia.

Still, partisan issues can arise. If anything, the numbers suggest that in West Virginia, multi-member districts have given a partisan advantage to the Democratic Party. In the last presidential election, just under half of Monongalia County residents voted for Republican Donald Trump. But four out of five of their county’s delegates are Democrats from Morgantown, the largest city in the district. 

The down-side of moving to single-member districts

In West Virginia, the redistricting process is controlled by legislators whose political futures are determined by the maps they’re drawing. 

Typically, multi-member districts are found in populous areas, like Morgantown or Charleston, which have historically been Democratic strongholds. Fifteen of the state’s 22 Democratic delegates come from multi-member districts. And now, Republicans will have control over these Democrats’ fate.

When the 2018 law that outlawed multi-member districts in West Virginia was being debated, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, sought to include an amendment that would have also moved the state away from a partisan redistricting process by creating an independent commission to oversee the mapmaking process. The amendment was shot down on partisan lines.

That’s a change from the early part of the last decade, when Democrats still controlled the Statehouse and had little interest in Republican proposals for an independent commission to handle redistricting.

Voting rights advocates have long pushed for the creation of independent commissions to oversee redistricting, wresting the power from the lawmakers impacted by it. 

Ken Martis, a professor emeritus at West Virginia University, spoke at the Monongalia County hearing to point out that in nearby Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan created such a committee by executive order earlier this year with Democrats set to control the redistricting process.

“Without an independent redistricting commission, the Legislature will have to be extremely careful drawing district lines,” Martis said.

The sentiment was echoed by another attendee, Sarah Barnes, co-president of the nonpartisan Monongalia County League of Women Voters. 

“I’m personally not opposed to [single-member districts] as long as the maps are drawn fairly,” Barnes said. This would mean, in Monongalia County, not dividing up Morgantown and lumping its voters in with rural communities that don’t face the same daily issues. 

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, the chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, is doing his best to assure voters there will be no gerrymandering. The Morgantown public hearing on redistricting is the sixth public hearing so far, in which the committee has sought public input on the map-making process. Six more are scheduled, and three will be held virtually for anyone in the state to attend.

“The advantage of going to all these different places in West Virginia is you get to hear from the people about what is important,” Trump said.

While the drawing of new maps has yet to begin, the U.S. Census Bureau released the data that will allow the process to start on Thursday. Trump said that it will take roughly a week for the data to be converted into a usable format that will allow lawmakers and staffers to begin looking at where populations have grown and shrunk, and redrawing district lines accordingly. Trump says that the committee will use citizen input as its guide.

“We don’t know if all of this [public input] is just show or if all of this is meaningful,” said Martis, the WVU professor, after the meeting. “The maps will show.”

Reach reporter Ian Karbal at iankarbal@mountainstatespotlight.org

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