By: Stephanie Wilmes
During the most recent session of the West Virginia legislature, state lawmakers introduced two new bills, House Bill 2129 and House Joint Resolution 21, that would change the way the state draws its district lines. Currently, the West Virginia Constitution requires only that Congressional districts be contiguous, compact, and of equal population; that state Senate districts be “compact, formed of contiguous territory, bounded by county lines, and, as nearly as practicable, equal in population;” and that the arrangement of the districts “shall… be declared by law.”
HB 2129, introduced in the House of Delegates on January 20, 2015, outlines in some specificity the details of a new redistricting process, which would place primary responsibility for redistricting in the Redistricting Office of the Joint Committee on Government and Finance. The bill provides a strict timeline for the process of gathering census data, drafting a redistricting bill, presenting that bill to both the Senate and House of Delegates, and redrafting the bill should it be rejected by either house. The proposed map must be made available for public comment for at least thirty days. Elected officials, lobbyists, and political party officials are forbidden from influencing or attempting to influence the districting process.
Most significantly, HB 2129 includes a long list of factors to be taken into consideration in the district-drawing process, starting with the mandate that the district map initially be drawn to create “districts of equal population in a grid-like pattern across the state.” The grid is to be adjusted to take into account factors such as: compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act; the creation of districts of equal population; compactness and contiguity; respect for community of interest; and respect for geographic features, city, town, and county boundaries, and census tracts. Further, no district may “be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent Legislator, or member of Congress,” or to either augment or dilute a racial minority group’s voting strength. The Redistricting Office may not take into account a variety of data including the political affiliations of registered voters or previous election results.
While HB 2129 would enact a new law imposing additional requirements on the redistricting process already in place, HJR 21, introduced on February 13, 2015, would make a more significant change. This proposed constitutional amendment would create a Citizens Redistricting Commission, which would replace the state legislature as the entity primarily responsible for drawing district maps.
The proposed Commission would have 90 days after the release of census data to draft redistricting bills for both Congressional and state Senate and Delegate districts. It must hold a series of at least five public hearings on the proposals across the state. The bills, once introduced, must pass, without amendment, by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.
Unlike HB 2129, HRJ 21 provides only a few restrictions on the content of the district maps: they cannot disregard the United States Constitution, the West Virginia Constitution, or redistricting case law, and they cannot take into account the residence of incumbents. Additionally, all delegate districts must be single member districts.
The Commission itself would be made up of seven members, no more than four of whom may be members of the same political party, and none of whom may be members of the Legislature or government employees. The Governor would be responsible for appointing the members. All must be registered voters and West Virginia residents for at least ten years prior to appointment.
If HJR 21 passes the legislature, it will appear on the 2016 general election ballot for consideration by the state’s voters. A similar proposal for a redistricting commission that would draw state Senate and Delegate, but not Congressional, district lines, HJR 201, was introduced in 2011 but failed to make it to the ballot. If HJR 21 is successful, West Virginia will join twenty-one other States that use redistricting commissions as part of their district-drawing processes.
Although neither HB 2129 nor HJR 21 had moved out of committee as of the close of the legislative session, the concerns that animated both bills, and perhaps especially HJR 21’s proposal for a new redistricting commission, are unlikely to disappear. The state legislators who draw district lines are self-interested and partisan; each one wants both to remain in office and for his or her party to maintain or increase its political power. The temptation to draw lines in one’s favor is strong, perhaps overwhelming, and certainly inevitable. Since 2010, six lawsuits have been brought challenging West Virginia’s district lines, one of which was argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although HB 2129 is sponsored entirely by Republicans and a Democrat proposed HJR 21, members of both parties have expressed concern over partisan influences in redistricting and interest in reforms such as the creation of a redistricting commission.