The late release of the 2020 census results led to a compressed time frame — that’s a euphemism for “rush job” — for legislatures to draw new boundaries for congressional and legislative districts for the 2022 elections.
Traditionally, West Virginia legislators have followed a simple rule in their decennial redistricting task — protect as many incumbents as possible. Who wants to vote for a plan that eliminates their seat?
Also traditionally, districts in the center of the state tend to be compact, while those on the edges tend to be spread out. That’s true of other states, too. West Virginia’s two narrow panhandles require that in some areas, but it has happened in other parts of the state, also.
Wayne County is one example. The way it is divided for House of Delegates and state Senate representation can be explained only by incumbent protection and the desire to keep districts in the state’s interior compact.
When the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Redistricting met at the Cabell County Courthouse last week, it heard from people from Wayne County and elsewhere about the need to keep border regions’ communities together.
Robert Thompson, a Wayne County commissioner and a former member of the House of Delegates, said the southern part of Wayne County has different interests than the northern part. The south is in the coalfields and much more rural than areas in the northern part, such as Ceredo and Kenova, which are more closely tied to Huntington, he said.
Nyoka Baker Chapman, representing the Huntington League of Women Voters, told legislators the goal should be compact districts, as districts are currently “chaotic.” Delegate District 16, for example, includes downtown Huntington and part of Lincoln County, she noted.
Huntington resident Lenny Sunduhl said, “I ask that great care be taken to make sure communities of interest stay grouped together.”
The idea that similar communities should be grouped together in legislative districts makes sense. It’s a way for people with common interests to have a voice in the Legislature. The problem with that is that similar communities might be separated by distances that would create some oddly drawn districts that are not compact. The word “gerrymandering” would be thrown around.
The fact is that districts for Wayne County — and Cabell County, to a lesser degree — have been drawn in ways that dilute their membership in the Legislature despite their populations. If the House carries out its commitment to single-delegate districts, communities with similar interests and needs are more likely to be grouped with others.
The compressed time frame that legislators must deal with will reduce the time available for deliberation and experimenting with different boundaries, but it does not eliminate the need to provide as many residents as possible with the representation they and their communities deserve.