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It should go without saying in a representative democracy, the voters choose the leaders, and not the other way around.

Sadly, that’s not always the case in the United States.

Every 10 years, state officials use the latest census data to redraw West Virginia’s legislative districts. These maps determine who represents us in Congress and the state Legislature. They also determine how resources are spent in our communities.

Redistricting will be of special importance in West Virginia this year; the state will lose a seat in Congress because of population decline, and a new state law will move us from 67 delegate districts — many of which are served by more than one delegate — to 100 single-member districts.

Unfortunately, elected leaders from both parties have historically used redistricting to hold onto power longer. They do this by slicing up our districts in ways that dilute their opponents’ voices, a process known as gerrymandering.

Gerrymandered districts serve the interests of politicians, not voters. They hurt everyone, but tend to harm communities of color most.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau released its data. As the once-in-a-decade redistricting process begins, Democrats fear (perhaps rightly) the process will be tilted against them, with districts drawn so that popular state legislators from their party will have to run against each other. Republicans counter (perhaps rightly) that Democrats were less concerned about fairness during the eight previous decades in which they controlled the process.

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Even before the release of the census data, the Legislature had begun holding public hearings, and has assigned a select committee on redistricting. The committee likely will study and approve new legislative districts during a special session this fall.

Redistricting must ensure fair and equal representation for all, upholding the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection and complying with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

State law also requires legislative districts be compact, continuous and preserve county lines.

Gerrymandered districts lead to an unhealthy democracy. Comfortable in their tailor-made districts, politicians no longer have to listen to opposing views. Legislation like combating climate change and fixing our broken health care system never sees the light of day.

The drawing of district lines can dictate not only who runs for public office, and who is elected, but also how financial resources are allocated for schools, hospitals, roads and more. Elected representatives have the power to make decisions that greatly affect the communities they represent, from education funding to taxes to addressing poverty.

Elected officials must ensure West Virginia’s electoral district boundaries are not sacrificed to self-interest and political parties. The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and our supporters will be watching the process closely to ensure it is fair and transparent.

Our democracy, our livelihoods and our communities depend on it.

Eli Baumwell is policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.

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