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  • The Morrisey Report: “State Redistricting Looms Large in 2011”

    The Morrisey Report: “State Redistricting Looms Large in 2011”
    Also Published in the Spirit 1/19/2011

    While the State Legislature and the West Virginia Supreme Court determine whether the Mountain State will hold a special gubernatorial election in 2011, another decision will be made this summer that will fundamentally alter the balance of political power in the State: the redrawing of West Virginia’s delegate and senate districts. Very few things are more important to a state and its politicians then the once-a-decade redistricting process. Redistricting plays a critical role in the allocation of legislative power, influences the distribution of funds, dictates who is eligible to run for office, and who is favored to win. Residents of the Eastern Panhandle should pay close attention to the redistricting process to ensure it is handled consistent with the West Virginia Constitution and that the region is not shortchanged.

    The concept of redistricting has been around for a long time and is always a source of major political disputes. Indeed, in the early days of our Republic, legislators in Virginia sought to “rig” the boundaries of a congressional district to prevent James Madison (who later became our fourth President) from securing a seat in Congress. In 1812, the famous term “gerrymandering” was coined to derogatively describe a redistricting map developed by Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry, because it looked like a “salamander” and was designed solely to give Gerry’s party a strong political advantage. Thereafter, “gerrymandering” was always referred to as a form of political manipulation.

    West Virginia has its own history with “gerrymandering” and another incumbent-protection practice: the use of multi-member legislative districts. While most of America has moved away from multi-member districts, West Virginia still maintains them. In fact, the 30th delegate district in Kanawha County alone sends seven members to Charleston. In West Virginia overall, the House of Delegates has 100 members, but only 58 districts. The State Senate has 34 senators and 17 districts. Believing that members elected from multi-member districts lack accountability, many officials across West Virginia, including Senator Joe Manchin and Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, have proposed changing this system. The Eastern Panhandle currently only has single member delegate districts.

    For the Eastern Panhandle, the stakes involved in redistricting are enormous. Based upon preliminary accounts, the Eastern Panhandle may pick up two delegate seats and one state senate post. This would shift representation away from the southern part of the state, where the population has declined, to Berkeley and Jefferson counties, where the population has grown dramatically. Jefferson County alone will likely have three full delegate districts.

    Sending additional representatives down to Charleston won’t shift the political power base of the State overnight, but it will, over time, provide the region with new clout on taxing, spending, and political issues. One of the biggest problems facing the Eastern Panhandle today is that it sends far too many taxes down to Charleston and lacks the authority to develop local solutions to local problems. A larger, stronger delegation may enhance local rule and bring new voices to bear on the unique economic challenges in this part of the state.

    Of course, the makeup of the Eastern Panhandle delegation will also be a hotly contested political fight. As the Democrats overwhelmingly control the State Legislature, they will be able to determine how the specific boundaries within each delegate and senate district are drawn. That means that we may end up seeing some creatively drawn districts in both Jefferson and Berkeley counties, in an effort to protect Democratic incumbents and to minimize the number of Republican victories. Interestingly, both the 57th district (Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry, and surrounding parts) and the 58th district (Charles Town, Ranson, Shannondale) will need to shed some of their population because of the growth these districts have seen over the past decade. In the next election, the 56th district (parts of Berkeley County, parts of Middleway) will gain significant numbers of Jefferson County voters and may be solely encompassed within the County. Each delegate district will likely contain approximately 18,000 people, whereas a senate district will likely include the population equivalent of six delegate districts.

    There is a long list of relevant questions for legislators as this process unfolds. For example, will parts of the Mountain remain in the 57th district? Will Shannondale continue to be included in the 58th district or will all areas east of the Shenandoah River be lumped together with the southern part of the county to form a new district? Will the Eastern Panhandle gain all of the seats it expects to? How will the district lines be “gerrymandered,” to enhance Jefferson County incumbents’ reelection campaigns? We will likely begin to learn the answers to some of these questions after the census data is released next month and before the lines are finalized over the summer.

    During this process, local legislators will have a great deal of influence over the exact breakdown of the district boundaries. In the recent State Senate leadership shakeup, two of our local officials ascended to senior positions, meaning they will be key figures in the redistricting process. Senator John Unger will serve as Majority Leader and Senator Herb Snyder will chair the Government Organization Committee. In many respects, the outcome of the redistricting process for the Eastern Panhandle will be heavily driven by Unger and Snyder.

    The West Virginia Constitution requires that “Every citizen shall be entitled to equal representation in the government, and, in all apportionments of representation.” This proposition will be sorely tested in 2011, as the State Legislature struggles with “gerrymandering” and multi-member district questions. Let’s hope that our legislators keep that Constitutional provision in mind as this delicate process unfolds.

    Patrick Morrisey is a resident of Harpers Ferry.
    (and an S&B user)