The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Monday that could fundamentally alter the chamber’s political and electoral landscape.
House Bill 4002 would nix the state’s reliance on multimember districts, where residents in certain areas vote for more than one delegate, yielding more than one winner. Following the decennial census, the bill would compel the Legislature to draw 100 single-member districts.
In West Virginia’s 67 House districts, 11 of those districts have two members, six districts have three members, two districts have four members, and one district has five members.
The vote passed 72-25. Of the 25 “no” votes, only three came from delegates who represent single-member districts: Phillip Diserio, D-Brooke; Ed Evans, D-McDowell; and Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton.
Fifty-three delegates serve in multimember districts.
Three Republicans voted against the bill: Vernon Criss, R-Wood; John Kelly, R-Wood; and Guy Ward, R-Marion, all from multimember districts. A chunk of Democrats also broke from party leadership and voted with Republicans.
West Virginia is one of 10 states that has multimember districts, and one of two (along with New Hampshire) to have House districts with more than two members, House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said in a floor speech.
During floor debate, Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, spoke against the bill, claiming it violates the state’s constitution. She also said multimember districts help women and minority groups win office.
Shott took issue with the charge of it being unconstitutional, denying that claim outright. Additionally, Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, noted that she won office in a single-member district in 2014 and 2016.
In a news release, Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley — a longtime proponent of single-member districts who sponsored the bill — said, “I have waited a long time to see this day, and I am grateful to finally help bring this reform to fruition. Single-member districts best exemplify the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ and offer enhanced accountability and more direct representation for our constituents.”
Three Democrats who voted for the bill — Delegates Mike Pushkin and Larry L. Rowe, of Kanawha County, and Brent Boggs, of Braxton County — said on the floor that, while they support the bill, if fair elections are the goal, members of the chamber also should support another bill that is currently under review from a House Judiciary subcommittee.
Although a House Judiciary subcommittee likely will rewrite House Bill 2383, which Overington sponsored, as well, the group formed to draft a bill that would create an independent, nonpartisan committee to handle redrawing district lines after the census, current law states that lawmakers themselves are responsible for drawing district lines.
In the subcommittee meeting Monday morning, before passage of HB 4002, two states’ laws came forward as potential models to build legislation around — those from Iowa and Idaho.
The committee counsel distributed a report last week to subcommittee members from the West Virginia Law Institute, a statutorily created research arm of the Legislature hosted at West Virginia University.
According to the report, Iowa’s Legislature appoints an independent advisory committee to draw district lines, although lawmakers retain final approval rights. Iowa code requires the committee to redraw district lines only using population data from the U.S. Census. The bill also prohibits the committee from using factors such as voter registration, race or past voter behavior when drawing the lines.
Idaho’s laws are similar, in that lawmakers appoint an independent committee to draw the lines. However, that committee is the product of selection from legislative leaders from both parties. Among other provisions, the Idahoan appointments cannot have previously served as lobbyists, or recently served as politicians or party officials.
Speaking at the meeting on why he put the bill together, Overington, who is chairman of the subcommittee, said the general idea behind the bill is to make redistricting a more politically neutral process.
“Its purpose was to take the personal benefits that can occur by gerrymandering out of the process,” he said.
The most current version of the bill generally calls for the formation of an independent committee — an undefined term in the legislation — that would redraw district lines only using population data from the U.S. Census. The bill also prohibits the committee from using voter registration, race or past voter behavior when drawing the lines, drawing from Iowa’s plan.
In the subcommittee meeting, Pushkin said that, while he wasn’t an elected official during the last round of redistricting, he saw less of a conspiracy to keep a party in power and more of incumbents working to protect their own seats.
“It wasn’t one party gerrymandering itself, but incumbents trying to save their own skin,” he said.
The subcommittee will continue to work on its redistricting bill as the single-member-district bill heads over to the Senate for review.