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Waiting on the state Senate to make a move

When the special session for redistricting started last Monday, I figured both the House of Delegates and Senate would quickly come to an agreement on a congressional redistricting map. I figured there would be heartburn over the delegate district map, but it would easily pass. And I figured senators could easily agree on a map.

I was wrong about that last point. The special session is in its second week all because the Senate’s Republican caucus can’t agree on a senatorial district map, meaning any map they might put out could be voted down with a certain number of Republicans joining Democrats in voting it down.

Twenty-three Republicans and 11 Democrats are in the Senate. You need 18 votes to pass in the 34-member Senate. At least one state senator, Republican Eric Nelson of Kanawha County, isn’t even in the country and isn’t expected to be back this week either. That means you have 22 Republican senators who can’t get enough consensus on a map that can survive a vote of the full Senate.

(Side note: I get trips overseas take time to plan and pay for, but I think most lawmakers knew even months ago that October was going to be when the redistricting special session started. Why put yourself in that position of being out of the country during probably the most important process the Legislature does that only happens once per decade?)

The Senate Redistricting Committee met last Monday and voted near-unanimously for a map that largely keeps the current 17 senatorial district lines the same, but it did give Monongalia County its own two-person district due to its population growth. Monongalia County has just enough population to warrant the entire county getting its own district without having to be split up. While the splitting of counties is discouraged, it must happen in certain circumstances in order to keep populations between the districts as equal as possible.

For example, for the 1st Senatorial District to have equal population representation, Marshall County has to be split. While Wheeling is one of the state’s largest cities, Ohio County alone doesn’t have the population for one district solely located within the county borders. Even with Hancock and Brooke counties, you still have to take part of Marshall County.

Senate Redistricting Committee Co-Chairman Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, says any senatorial redistricting map requires at least four county splits: Kanawha County, Cabell County, the Eastern Panhandle and the North Panhandle. The map the committee chose last week has the lowest numbers of splits of the maps that were submitted by lawmakers with seven splits.

However, there was a map floating around out there last week that appears to split up 13 counties, including counties that have never had or needed to be split up before, as well as a similar number of cities and towns. Senate Minority Whip Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, warned about this map at last Monday’s committee meeting, as it splits Cabell County in two.

The ghost map finally was posted Wednesday evening to the Senate Redistricting Committee’s website. Of note: of all the proposals the committee submitted and of the five map amendments in the system as of Sunday, it’s the only map that has no name attached to it. It’s been dubbed the Karnes/Tarr map, named for Republican Sens. Robert Karnes of Randolph County and Eric Tarr of Putnam County.

Karnes neither confirms nor denies ownership of the map, calling it a caucus map. If it’s a caucus map developed by the Republican caucus, why do we keep delaying voting on the bill? The bill was moved to third reading with amendments pending Wednesday and laid over on Thursday and Friday.

It is interesting to me that every map has someone claiming ownership of it except this one. Perhaps that’s because this map is highly unusual. It does indeed break up Cabell County, splitting it between one district with Mason and Jackson counties and another district with part of Wayne and Lincoln counties (Traditionally, a small slither of northern Wayne County is a part of Cabell’s district.

It also, somehow, connects Clay County to Mercer County through Nicholas, Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties. Instead of giving Monongalia County its own district, it gives more of Monongalia and Marion counties to the 2nd Senatorial District’s Marshall, Wetzel, Doddridge and Tyler counties. It combines southern Kanawha County into Boone and Logan counties, seemingly because people from Madison and Chapmanville shop in Charleston’s South Ridge area.

The map certainly appears designed to help get more Republicans elected. I’m told that the operatives who had a hand in crafting this map believe it can help get Republicans to a 30-seat majority. However, more Republicans are likely to get elected to the Senate regardless of the map they choose. Four Democratic incumbents are not returning to the Senate in 2022 with one a maybe, so that’s as many as five seats already up for grabs.

The map also seems designed to target more moderate Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo and Nelson, both of Kanawha County. Some of the more vax-skeptical members of the Senate Republican Caucus were unhappy with Takubo, a doctor who deals with respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19, putting himself front and center last month advocating for vaccinations with Gov. Jim Justice.

No matter what happens, everyone is waiting on the Senate to make a move.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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