West Virginia has a hodgepodge House of Delegates. By that I mean that the 100 members are divided up unevenly among the districts. Forty-seven of the 67 districts have one delegate. Eleven districts have two members, six districts have three, two districts have four and one district has five.
No, it doesn’t make any sense and it’s out of step with the rest of the country. Only two states—West Virginia and New Hampshire—have more than three members in a district. New Hampshire has 400 members in its House, while West Virginia has only 100.
Monday, the House of Delegates passed HB 4002 which will correct the inconsistencies in West Virginia, while finally creating more equal representation in the chamber. The bill says when the Legislature redistricts following the 2020 Census that “the House of Delegates is to be permanently composed of one hundred single member districts to meet constitutional standards.”
The bill passed 72-25 with 3 absent. Twenty-two of the “no” votes were from Democrats while 3 Republicans opposed the bill. Democrats led the floor fight against the bill, but none of the arguments held.
One Democrat contended the bill violates the State Constitution—it doesn’t. Another said his multi-member district works just fine, while pointing out that he had been repeatedly re-elected. (That made for a unique way of defining good government.)
Single member districts bring government closer to the people. Each district will have about 18,000 people—a manageable number for the delegate—as opposed to multi-member districts that can have two, three or even five times the population.
Single member districts also clarify and simplify voting. Let’s say a district has three delegates and the General Election has six candidates—three Democrats and three Republicans. Can a voter be expected to be knowledgeable about six candidates? Should they vote for three or just one or two?
Our elections are largely based on candidates who oppose each other, but who is running against whom in a multi-member district? It’s an electoral cattle call that disproportionally rewards candidates with high name recognition, while protecting marginal incumbents.
Those who worry about the increasing cost of campaigns should support single member districts. It’s typically going to be less expensive for a candidate to run a local race in an 18,000 person district than try to cover an area and population that is three or four times larger.
The House vote was the big hurdle. Multi-member districts are not an issue in the Senate, which has two members for each district as dictated by the state Constitution, so the Senate will defer to the House on HB 4002.
There is one sticking point, however; how will those redistricting lines be drawn? Historically the lawmakers themselves have done that, meaning the boundaries are subject to political gerrymandering.
The fair and equitable way would be for an independent commission to draw those boundaries and have the legislature vote the plan up or down. However, the Republican majority—or whichever party is in charge during redistricting—may be unwilling to turn over that power to a third party.