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More representation needed for Panhandle

November 19, 2010
By Delegate John Doyle

Every 10 years the state legislature must draw new election districts for itself and for the state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The exercise comes after each decennial census, required by the United States Constitution, is conducted of our country's population. The census was done last year (it's undertaken each year ending in zero). The final official figures of West Virginia's population will be delivered to the legislature sometime during the upcoming 2011 regular session.

Most likely there will not be time during the regular session to draw the new lines. There will probably be a special session sometime between late spring and early fall to create the new districts. Today we'll talk about the House of Delegates redistricting. Future columns will discuss the State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jefferson County now has 2.4 members of the House of Delegates. There are two districts entirely within Jefferson County's borders, one being ours (the 57th) and the other (the 58th) being represented by Del. Tiffany Lawrence. The "point-four" district is the Jefferson County portion of the 56th district, now represented by Del. Terry Walker and soon to be represented by Delegate-elect Eric Householder. The other 60 percent of that district is in Berkeley County.

After redistricting, Jefferson will, due to population growth, almost certainly have exactly three districts within its borders. Since Householder resides in Berkeley County, he will no longer represent any portion of Jefferson County, even if he were to be re-elected in 2012 (which is when the new districts must be operative). So, one of Jefferson County's three districts will have no incumbent in it. The Jefferson County portion of what is now the 56th district will need to be expanded by taking four to six precincts (depending on their size) from the 57th and/or the 58th.

If all or most of the population for the new full district were to come from one of those two, then the other would have to give a precinct or two to the one that gave up the larger share of population to the new one. It's conceivable that an existing precinct or two might have to be divided. Federal court decisions mandate that the populations of legislative districts may differ no more than 5 percent from the average size population of all the districts for that office.

Let's say, just for grins, that West Virginia's population comes in at exactly 1,815, 400. That would mean that the average size single-member House of Delegates district, presuming we stay at 100 members, would be 18,154. Five percent of that figure is 907, so no single-member delegate district in the state may have less than 17,247 nor more than 19,061. Historically, West Virginia has tried to keep delegate districts within existing county boundaries whenever possible.

There appears to be more interest this year than 10 years ago in expanding the number of single-member house districts. I sure hope so because I think the single-member district is the best manifestation of "one person, one vote," which is, to me, critical to fair and effective representation.

Twenty years ago West Virginia's 100-seat House of Delegates had only 36 districts, and only about a dozen were single-member districts. In 1991, many more single-member districts were created, and the total number went to 56. Ten years ago, only a couple of more "singles" were created. Interestingly, every district east of Elkins is a single-member district.

Of the 50 states, only eight or nine have any multi-member districts in their lower houses. And none have any districts with more than three members. Plus, only neighboring Maryland has districts of different sizes - it has some single-member districts and some three-member districts (but no two-seaters). By contrast, West Virginia's House of Delegates districts contain any number of seats (except six) between one and seven! I cannot comprehend how anybody can say with a straight face that this is fair representation.

If we end up with more districts than we have now, the numbers designating Jefferson County's districts will most likely change. The legislature has traditionally started with the "No. 1" at the far northern tip of the Northern Panhandle, worked down the Ohio River to the southernmost tip of the state (in McDowell County) and then back northeast to our area. We now have, as mentioned above, 58 districts, so Jefferson's are numbered 56, 57 and 58. If we end up with, say, 70 districts, ours will most certainly be numbered 68, 69 and 70.

Ten years ago, the Eastern Panhandle had six House of Delegates members. We had gained enough population for an additional one and a half members. The house could have in 2001 overpopulated our districts to the maximum number allowed by the federal courts and given us only one additional delegate. Many delegates from around the state wanted to do that. But then-Speaker Bob Kiss sided with the Eastern Panhandle. He did us a great favor by insisting that the Eastern Panhandle's population was going to continue to grow and that therefore our districts should be underpopulated to the minimum permitted by the federal courts. So we ended up with eight delegates, not seven. Remember, in redistricting, overpopulation equals underrepresentation and underpopulation equals overrepresentation.

I suspect that kind of fight will not happen this time, since the eastern three counties appear to have gained enough population in the last 10 years to warrant two additional delegates in districts very close to the average population for single-member districts.

The Eastern Panhandle may have gained enough population to legally justify three additional delegates, were the districts to be underpopulated as they were in 2001. I think that would be the right thing to do. But I do not expect our colleagues from the rest of the state will be that generous to us. Would we be that generous, were we in the majority of areas that are losing population rather than in the minority that are gaining?

We might be able to win such a fight again, were it to be a choice between overpopulating districts and underpopulating them. But since it looks like we're going to have very close to exactly the right population for two additional delegates, I think that's what we'll end up with.

If we're surprised by the final population figures we're given, things could change. But the annual population estimates given out by the U.S. Department of Commerce usually predict the decennial census fairly closely. By track of the annual estimates from 2001 to 2009, we'll get two additional House of Delegates members for the eastern three counties, and Jefferson County will increase its representation from 2.4 house districts to three.

By the state constitution, the legislature can increase or decrease the number of members in the House of Delegates and or Senate at each redistricting (but not at any other time). We've been at 100 members in the house for close to 100 years, and I have heard no talk of changing that number this time.



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