On February 11, 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a congressional redistricting plan to maintain the political power of the Democratic-Republican Party.* Critics said one of the oddly drawn new districts resembled a salamander, thus the term “gerrymander” was born.
Since then, politicians of both parties have practiced the art of drawing political districts to favor their own. However, that may be changing. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing cases that could diminish the partisanship involved in political boundary configurations.
West Virginia, like every other state, will redistrict after the 2020 census. We will likely lose one of the three Congressional seats because of population growth in other parts of the country. That means congressional redistricting will be a matter of drawing one line to divide the state in half.
But where that line is drawn will be important since party registration varies from county to county. Neighboring Maryland famously redrew its congressional districts after the 2010 Census to favor the Democrats.
The controversial 6th District stretches from the Maryland-West Virginia border through the Republican western panhandle all the way to heavily-populated suburban Washington, D.C., giving the Democrats an advantage. That gerrymander is one of the cases pending before the Supreme Court.
Statehouse boundaries could be impacted as well, depending on how the high court rules.
West Virginia has already made significant progress in eliminating the outdated multi-member districts for the House of Delegates. Forty-seven of the 67 districts have one delegate, but eleven have two members, six have three, two districts have four and one has five.
That hodgepodge makes no sense. Multi-member districts are confusing for voters and they make it harder for candidates to run against a particular opponent. Fortunately, this past session the Legislature approved, and the Governor signed, HB 4002.
The new law states simply that “following the United States Census of 2020, all delegates shall be elected from one-hundred single member districts.” However, the Legislature failed to pass a companion bill designed to remove partisanship from redistricting, leaving the map drawing up to legislators.
HB 2383 said specifically that districts “shall not be drawn favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate or political party.” To ensure impartiality, West Virginia could have followed the lead of a handful of other states and required an independent commission to draw the lines. But the bill died in the House.
I’ve heard the argument that there is no such thing as an “independent commission” and that the drawing of voting districts is inherently political. There is some truth to that, but we also know that the current method provides an open invitation to gerrymander. How can politicians resist the temptation to descend on the redistricting map room, pencils in hand?
The Legislature deserves credit for gradually but inevitably moving toward all single-member House of Delegate districts. They did fall short on the appointment of an independent commission to define those political boundaries.
However, that may also change, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in their gerrymandering cases.
*(Correction: An earlier version of the commentary identified Gerry as a Republican. He was a member of what was known at the time as the Democratic-Republican Party.)