People at a hearing about West Virginia’s legislative redistricting process told lawmakers Thursday they are most concerned about transparency and ensuring the House of Delegates has 100 single-member districts.
In the West Virginia Culture Center, 14 people, including county elections officials, county party representatives and concerned citizens, also asked lawmakers to do everything they can to honor county, municipal and neighborhood boundaries when they redraw the state’s legislative districts.
Thursday’s meeting was the 11th of 12 hosted by the West Virginia Legislature Joint Committee on Redistricting, as part of its preparation to redraw the state’s 17 Senate Districts, as well as expand the number of House Districts from 67 to 100.
The meeting included nine members of the 33-member Redistricting Committee who are tasked with drawing up the district maps that lawmakers are expected to consider in October.
Work on drawing the district maps has been slow to start, because of the delayed release of the 2020 U.S. Census data. The data typically is released in April, following a census year, but COVID-19 led to delays. The preliminary 2020 census data was released in August, and final reports are expected by the end of this month.
The first five redistricting hearings took place before the U.S. Census Bureau released the 2020 census data on Aug. 12, but Redistricting Committee Co-Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said lawmakers felt it was important to begin legwork on redistricting as soon as possible.
“I think it’s useful, nonetheless, because people have feelings, clearly, about their districts,” Trump said Thursday. “They’ve been living in, for the last 10 years, House districts and Senate districts, and we’ve gotten good input from lots of people around the state on their views on those questions, and I’m hoping we’re going to get more.”
Legislative leaders plan to convene a special session from Oct. 11 to 13 to adopt new district maps. Lawmakers already are scheduled to be in Charleston those days for interim legislative meetings.
In addition to drawing House and Senate districts, the Legislature will draw West Virginia’s new congressional map. The state will go from three congressional districts to two, starting with the 2022 election cycle.
After the Legislature approves the new district maps, county commissions will be responsible for drawing magisterial districts, which, despite their name, are not used in magistrate races. Magisterial districts instead are used in county commission and county board of education elections.
Of the 14 speakers who addressed committee members Thursday in Charleston, six of them asked legislators to draw the House districts to include 100 single-member districts.
Lawmakers already are required to draw single-member House districts because of a 2018 law. The Senate will keep its 17 districts.
Transparency was an issue for at least three people who said they had heard that Redistricting Committee staff members already were drawing up maps based on communications they’d received from lawmakers.
“It’s my understanding that staff is already taking input from members of the Legislature as to their input on what the system should look like,” said Eli Baumwell, advocacy director with ACLU-West Virginia. “This is concerning because, as far as I can tell, there’s no public transparency to this. This is seriously concerning, as far as transparency goes, and raises the specter of gerrymandering, whether or not that’s the case.”
After the meeting, Trump said he had encouraged senators to begin submitting their district suggestions to a person who inputs data in Maptitude, the district-drawing program the Legislature is using.
Trump said he’d been in communication with Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, to see how to get the proposed new maps posted online as soon as possible to allow for feedback.
“To get things out there in the public domain, I think, is really important, because we will get feedback,” Trump said. “People will say, ‘That’s a dumb map,’ or ‘That’s a really good map.’ I think that is a really important part of this process.
“So, I guess that’s a long way of saying I agree. More transparency, more openness will help with this process.”
Fayette County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman David Sohonage came to the meeting on behalf of the Democratic Party executive committees for the counties in the 10th Senatorial District — Fayette, Greenbrier, Summers and Monroe.
He said those committees want their Senate district to stay the same, saying they also are in the same judicial circuit and conservation district, and that leaders in those counties have worked well together on things including response to the 2016 flood and economic development opportunities.
“[The 10th Senate District] comprises four complete counties — counties that are of great, like interests, counties that are compact, counties that are contiguous, counties that have compelling economic reasons to remain together,” Sohonage said. “We are a hotbed for parks, now state and national parks, and tourism within those counties.”
Jackson County Clerk Cheryl Bright was the first person to address the committee. She asked members to take a closer look at county and municipal boundaries to draw “clean lines” around each district.
She asked them to consider the efficiencies in money, time and effort, not only for county clerks who have to adhere precincts and ballots to the Legislature’s decisions, but to the voters who need the easiest possible access to their precincts during an election cycle.
Jackson County is split among three House districts, which makes for niche ballots, particularly for District 11, which takes three precincts in southern Jackson County, Bright said. She wants at least those three precincts absorbed into one of the other two districts in the county, and she asked committee members to slightly move existing district lines to reach certain roads or existing municipal boundaries, which has been a common request made on behalf of other counties during the redistricting hearings.
“Just small tweaks like that in Jackson County will go a long way to help our voters, make them feel like that their voices are being heard,” Bright said.