Dividing Lines: Getting W.Va.’s congressional districts right
CHARLESTON – The first draft maps laying out what a future without three congressional districts in West Virginia could look like will be available for public review as soon as next Wednesday as lawmakers start preliminary redistricting work.
The West Virginia Senate Redistricting Committee held an organizational meeting Thursday approving rules for the committee, including requiring any draft redistricting map to be made publicly available for 24 hours before being reviewed by the committee, which meets again 3 p.m. Thursday.
“I think this is a really important piece of this,” said Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, the chairman of the Redistricting Committee and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Redistricting.
“What this will mean is before this committee acts and votes on any particular map, it’s going to be at least 24 hours, and I’m hoping we can do a little better than that if time permits, so people can see it and so we can post it to the internet on our redistricting website and we’ll get feedback.”
The House of Delegates Redistricting Committee is holding its own organizational meeting next Thursday at 9 a.m. when members also will review draft maps for new House of Delegates districts and congressional districts.
During discussion Thursday, the Senate Redistricting Committee decided to focus first on congressional redistricting before getting into changing the boundaries of the 17 state senatorial districts.
“I’d like to see us do congressional first and go through what should be an easier process,” said Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam.
“I would agree with the senator from Putnam as well, that we should start with something easy just to test the waters,” Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, said.
“The senator from Preston is nothing if not optimistic,” Trump said. “The choice of the word ‘easy’ I find to be very optimistic.”
MAPPING IT OUT
West Virginia has had three congressional districts since 1992, each with roughly 600,000 people. At one point, the state had six congressional districts and one at-large district. But with West Virginia continuing to lose population since 1950, those districts slowly dwindled to three.
After the 2020 Census, West Virginia’s population dropped to 1,793,716 and resulted in the loss of another congressional district. Lawmakers will need to draw two congressional districts with about 900,000 residents each.
“I am among many West Virginians who are sad that we’re going to have to go from three to two,” Trump said after Thursday’s meeting. “Having three people as opposed to two representing the people of the state in the United States House of Representatives is difficult and bitter. That said, it is what it is. Our apportionment is what it is, and what we have to do is make the best two districts we can make.”
Liz Schindzielorz, counsel for the Senate Redistricting Committee, explained the congressional redistricting requirements in the U.S. Constitution, the state Constitution and in federal law.
The overarching rule is equality, with each congressional district having roughly the same number of people. The West Virginia Constitution requires congressional districts to be made up of contiguous counties without splitting counties.
“They are to be as close to perfect equality as possible, “Schindzielorz said. “There isn’t any fixed numerical or percentage population… to be considered a bright-line standard.”
“We have to make them as equal as possible and our state Constitution says we can’t divide counties for congressional districts,” Trump said. “I’m hoping we won’t consider any map that draws two districts in a way that divides counties between congressional districts. That said, there are a number of different ways they can be drawn.”
The state Constitution also requires districts be “compact,” defined by the courts as having constituents live as close to each other as possible. With a state with two jutting panhandles, the compactness requirement has created some legal issues in the past. The 2nd District, for example, stretches across the state’s waist, from Jackson County in the west to Jefferson County in the east.
Brian Skinner, a former legislative attorney and lobbyist with Hartman, Harman and Cosco, said in a blog post Tuesday that the courts have been forgiving in the past regarding compactness issues.
“The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which has the authority to review the work of the Legislature to ensure that it meets constitutional requirements, has in the past given the Legislature a great deal of flexibility to gauge compactness for itself,” Skinner wrote.
LINE IN THE SAND
It might seem simple taking West Virginia’s congressional districts down from three to two, simply drawing a line north to south or east to west, but how the two new districts are drawn could affect the Mountain State’s regional dynamics for decades.
“Congressional redistricting is the single most important political issue in front of the State of West Virginia right now by a pretty wide margin,” said Chris Stirewalt, an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and former West Virginia political editor, last month during the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Meeting at the Greenbrier Resort.
At least two out of three of West Virginia’s congressional delegation were in the same room when Stirewalt delivered his remarks: 1st District Congressman David McKinley and 3rd District Congresswoman Carol Miller. Neither were available for comment for this story.
McKinley’s district includes Monongalia County and Morgantown, one of the two fastest growing regions of the state. 2nd District Congressman Alex Mooney, who did not attend Stirewalt’s speech, and also was not available for comment for this story, represents a district that includes the Eastern Panhandle counties of Berkeley and Jefferson, also the fastest growing region of the state.
Miller’s district encompasses southern West Virginia, and despite including the state’s two largest cities, the Capital city of Charleston and Huntington, her district’s population has shrunk. Whatever the next congressional district map will look like, Stirewalt said it will need to find a way to avoid having the state’s two fastest-growing regions in one district, but to do that, it could mean putting two regions together with little in common.
“I’m worried about redistricting in West Virginia, because I think it’s going to turn it into a poor district and a rich district,” Stirewalt told the room full of business leaders, lawmakers, and politicos. “I think that a north/south split on the state is a bad idea. And I’m concerned that you end up with the
Stirewalt’s answer was creating two congressional districts that split up the state’s two high-growth regions between the new districts. That would involve keeping Morgantown/Monongalia County in the 1st Congressional District and combining the Eastern Panhandle and Southern West Virginia into the new 2nd Congressional District.
“I’d have one district that was Wheeling, Parkersburg, Ripley, Charleston, Morgantown; and I’d have one district that was the Eastern Panhandle, Beckley and Huntington. Those are two good districts,” Stirewalt said. “If you have a fast-growing district with higher educational attainment levels and higher income levels, and you have one that is shrinking with lower educational and lower income levels, the disparity will widen over time.”
It’s been done before. When West Virginia had four congressional districts prior to 1993, the former 2nd Congressional District stretched down the eastern border of the state, from the Eastern Panhandle to Fayette, Summers, Monroe, and Greenbrier counties in Southern West Virginia.
However, putting the Eastern Panhandle and Southern West Virginia together could results in a Republican primary between four-term Congressman Mooney and two-term Congresswoman Miller. Another scenario could put Mooney up against McKinley, now in his sixth term since his election in 2010.
All three members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation released a statement in April announcing that all intended to run for re-election at that time, though all could change their minds depending on the final maps.
“At this time, we all plan to seek re-election to Congress,” McKinley, Mooney and Miller wrote. “Once the West Virginia State Legislature meets in the fall and redraws the congressional maps, we will consider the issue again at that time.”
COLOR WITHIN THE LINES
The Joint Committee on Redistricting just wrapped up 12 regional public hearings and three virtual public hearings to receive input from citizens on their thoughts on redistricting.
“We’ve had submissions to the Redistricting Committee from the public,” Trump said. “A number of people have already drawn what they think are reasonable and sound configurations of congressional districts. I’m hoping the committee will give serious thought, and I’m confident in the end that we’re going to do what makes the most sense for West Virginia.”
Wrapping up his remarks in redistricting last month, Stirewalt said that the discussion concerning congressional redistricting in West Virginia “will shape the next 20 years of how West Virginians see themselves and how they see each other.”
“However the districts are drawn, they should be drawn with an attitude that says we want balanced districts that are both strong, that are both growing, and that are both vibrant for the future,” Stirewalt said.