West Virginia continues to be an outlier on how House of Delegates districts are determined. Forty-seven of the 67 districts are single-member—one delegate per district. Eleven districts have two members, six districts have three, two districts have four and one district has five.
It makes no sense, and is an oddity when compared with other states. Former West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman George Carenbauer has studied the redistricting issue for years. He reports that West Virginia is one of only three states—the others are Maryland and New Hampshire—that have districts with more than two members.
Only two states have more than three members in a district—West Virginia and New Hampshire—but New Hampshire has 400 members in its House, while West Virginia has 100.
As Carenbauer has argued, single-member districts make for better government. The districts are smaller so the representative is closer to the electorate. In multi-member districts, it’s less clear who represents the voters.
Single-member districts simplify voting. It’s confusing now when voters are asked to vote for more than one candidate. Also, poor candidates and marginal incumbents can “hide” in multi-member districts since they only have to be among the top vote getters.
Our political system is geared toward candidates running against each other, but that doesn’t happen in multi-member districts. It’s a cattle call that rewards name recognition and makes it nearly impossible for an individual candidate to challenge a specific opponent.
Carenbauer argues that it’s cheaper for a politician to run in a single-member. It’s less expensive for a candidate to reach fewer voters in a smaller area than to try to finance a campaign with three or four times as many voters in a larger geographical area.
West Virginia has been moving more toward single-member districts. We’ve gone from 36 to 47 in the redistricting following the 2010 Census. Another opportunity is quickly approaching with the 2020 Census, after which the state will redraw the boundaries for the House of Delegates and state Senate districts, as well as the Congressional districts.
(The Congressional configuration is going to be particularly touchy because we will likely lose a district and be forced to draw lines converting three districts into two. That could pit two incumbents against each other.)
The hard part will be eliminating the temptation of politicians to redraw the boundaries in favor of incumbents and the status quo. Carenbauer suggests West Virginia follow the lead of a number of other states that contract with independent commissions for reapportionment. The legislature would still have the final say, but it would reduce much of the political self-interest.
As Carenbauer points out, West Virginia has moved steadily in the direction of good government with non-partisan election of judges and the elimination of straight-ticket voting. The next logical step is to finish the job on single-member districts after the next Census.