For months, West Virginia lawmakers have met both publicly and privately to determine how the state will be divided into new political districts that will affect state and federal elections for the next decade.
The process, known as redistricting, occurs every 10 years, after the U.S. Census. As populations in the state and country shift, so must the political boundaries: This ensures that constituents in any given area have roughly the same voting power as constituents in another.
Starting Monday, the Legislature will convene a special session to finalize maps proposed by redistricting committees in the House of Delegates and state Senate. The House committee, chaired by Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, has already proposed a single map for delegate districts. The Senate committee, chaired by Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, has proposed multiple maps, but has yet to choose one that will advance to the full Legislature for a vote.
Both committees have proposed many different options for re-drawing the state’s congressional districts, which will shrink from three to two in the next election.
With multiple major changes set to take place, this year’s process will be one of the most consequential for West Virginia in decades.
The process will also be led by a Republican Party that has a supermajority in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, as well as control of the Governor’s Mansion—the first time the party has controlled all three since the Great Depression-era.
What’s at stake for West Virginians?
How political boundaries are drawn can have massive impacts on how elections play out, and which communities are able to send representatives to the Statehouse, even when you don’t account for how the people within those boundaries vote.
And because of a 2018 law that requires the current 67 House of Delegates districts be divided into 100, there are lots of new lines for lawmakers to draw.
One example of a place where this rearranging could have real consequences is Martinsburg. The current proposed delegate district map divides the city among four delegate districts, with each of those districts fanning out into surrounding, more rural areas.
With a population of 18,777 as of the most recent census, an entire delegate district could theoretically fit within the boundaries of the city, guaranteeing residents a lawmaker that would represent the city alone in every election. But drawing the lines to split up Martinsburg and include outlying areas means that voters will have to share delegates with residents from surrounding areas, whose needs, priorities and political leanings may diverge.
Will the process be fair?
West Virginia is one of 10 states in the country where lawmakers control the redistricting process, as opposed to an independent commission, or some combination of lawmakers and independent citizens. While a legislative-run process does not mean there will be gerrymandering—the manipulation of political boundaries with the intent to influence future elections—it suggests an inherent conflict of interest. The lines drawn by lawmakers will have an impact on their party’s future, as well their personal political careers.
Sometimes gerrymandering appears in a partisan way, like when a majority party is trying to cement its control of a legislature. Sometimes it’s to dilute the influence of racial groups, or communities bound by a shared language or history.
Bills to move the state to a redistricting process run by an independent, bipartisan or nonpartisan commission have been introduced many times over the decades by West Virginia lawmakers. While such moves have frequently been supported by members of the minority party, Democrats and Republicans alike, the majority party has always shot them down.
And while fair elections advocates across the political spectrum have advocated for moving to single-member delegate districts, like West Virginia is doing this year, some fear that adding more boundaries can lead to more gerrymandering, especially when lawmakers are drawing those lines.
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts could not strike down political maps over partisan gerrymandering, no matter how blatant.
This year, leaders of the West Virginia House and Senate redistricting committees promised transparency. Lawmakers held public hearings across the state to collect input from citizens about how their communities should be divided. However, there is no requirement that lawmakers take this input into account.
Lawmakers have also repeatedly solicited citizen input on the proposed maps that are set to be voted on by the full Legislature. But with only days to go until lawmakers are set to vote on those, the Senate redistricting committee has still yet to decide on a final Senate district map to set forward. The House committee released their sole proposed map on Sept. 30, less than two weeks before the recently-announced special session.
Democrats in the House of Delegates have already raised concerns that they’re being treated unfairly, with little time to push back against proposed maps. Nearly half of their caucus in the chamber has been drawn into a district with another incumbent, which means someone will definitely lose a seat unless they move to a new district. In four districts, Democrats have been pitted against fellow Democrats, and in two districts, Democrat delegates were drawn in with a Republican.
Howell, for his part, has said that he did not look at lawmakers’ addresses when drawing the maps.
What are the rules?
All electoral districts, federal and local, must be roughly equal in population across the state, a concept known as “one person, one vote.” If one district had a significantly higher population than another, citizens in the more populous district would have their individual votes diluted.
Generally, congressional districts should have a population deviance of no more than 1%. Similarly, courts have largely held that delegate and state senatorial districts that deviate by no more than 10% between the most and least populous districts can stand.
In West Virginia, lawmakers are also required to keep counties together as much as possible by not crossing county lines when drafting districts. And the state constitution holds that districts must be compact and contiguous.
When it comes to both differences in population and deviations from county lines, lawmakers must be ready to defend their decisions in court. Keeping a community, or specific city, together, for example, could be a justification for allowing one district to have a larger population than another. But a lawsuit could be successful if deviations are found to be arbitrary.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act also prohibits lawmakers from gerrymandering communities along racial lines—or from dividing up minority communities to dilute their power of their vote.
Why is this all happening so fast?
Because of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, delivery of the results of the 2020 census were delayed from April to August.
The changing delegate district map could also create electoral complications if it’s finalized after November, especially for incumbents. State law requires that candidates live in a district for one year prior to an election. As it stands, because the number of districts is increasing, 33 of the districts don’t exist yet. And a lawmaker drawn into a district with a fellow incumbent may want to move into a district without an incumbent to run again with less established opposition.
What happens next?
Both the House and Senate redistricting committees still need to vote to advance their proposed maps to the whole statehouse. Once there, lawmakers will vote to advance them to the Governor’s desk as is, or make amendments, by majority vote. To initiate this process, Gov. Jim Justice called the legislature into a special session that will start Monday, Oct. 11.
After the maps have advanced through the chambers, Justice can sign the new maps into law, or veto them. Though a veto can be overridden with a simple majority vote, it’s a powerful symbolic gesture. In 2011, for example, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the first redistricting plan sent to his desk, and a second special session was called where lawmakers amended the maps to address some of his critiques.
Still, even after attaining the governor’s sign-off, the maps may face a final challenge: lawsuits. Historically speaking, a lawsuit over any new map is likely and officials are expecting them. Last week at a town hall meeting in Fairmont, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey noted that he was already preparing to allocate resources to defending whatever map the Legislature ends up passing.