Single-delegate districts a win-win for West Virginia

For this November’s election our state is completing an historic change in how we elect members to the West Virginia House of Delegates.

We started changes in this redistricting process at the end of the 1980s when we had 40 delegate districts for the 100 members. Now three decades later this change is completed and will greatly increase accountability in our legislative representation.

In the Eastern Panhandle we had all single-delegate districts when I was first elected in 1984, while other parts of the state had many multimember districts. For example, in Charleston all of Kanawha County was in one 12-member district. At the time what this meant was that the entire county, with a population of then 231,414, had 24 delegate candidates competing on the ballot together for the 12 seats in the one multimember district.

With a district that large it was hard for the representatives to get to know even a sizable number of the voters they were accountable to and equally hard for the voters to know many of their delegates and candidates. Going door-to-door was an almost impossible task, and campaigns using direct mail and newsletters were extremely expensive. In that environment personal accountability and interaction were greatly reduced.

During the 1980s in the South, Democrats used multimember districts as a way to discriminate against Blacks. The way it worked, for example, was you could take a 4-majority white district, combine it with a black district and with the numbers you would have a majority 5-member white district. I had a sister who worked at the U.S. Justice Department and became aware of this practice.

During the 1992 redistricting process that was required each decade, I requested we see if we had a district that would have a black majority and could thus create a single-delegate black district. When the state demographics were checked, no area matched up, but a black influence area was identified in Kanawha County. To accommodate this concern the 12-member district in Kanawha County in 1992 was divided into three separate districts, a 7-member district, a 4-member district and the minority influence single-delegate district. The state went from 40-delegate districts to 56 districts that year and decade.

There was also an additional partisan benefit in that Kanawha County tended to elect Democrats by overwhelming numbers. Now Republicans had a much better chance of winning as well. And that is exactly what happened as we elected four Republicans in the new 4-member district, who became familiarly called the “Four Housemen,” although it did also guarantee a liberal Democrat being elected in the new single-delegate district. This also tended to help in other parts of the state to elect Republicans as other multimember districts were divided.

Incidentally, I used that 7-member Kanawha district as a rationale for another change; to increase the number of sponsors on a bill from two to seven so all members in a district could show support for an issue in sponsoring a bill and thereby increasing its visibility and support level.

Ten years later during the 2002 redistricting, we continued the process of further subdividing the multimember districts going from 56 districts to 58. In the 2012 redistricting we went from 58 to 67 districts with Morgantown/Monongalia County currently having the largest multimember district with 5 members. The last bill I got passed in 2018 before retiring was HB 4002 to create 100 single-delegate districts following the U.S. Census in 2020. I am pleased that has been followed and will be implemented this election cycle.

The end result is a win-win for the public. We will have government that is more accountable, closer to the people. Voters can better follow their delegate to see if their views match up with the voting record of their representative. At the same time campaigns should be less expensive and voters will more likely get to know their individual legislator. And for motivated candidates seeking to go door-to-door, this is a more viable possibility in all districts where the voter and their delegate get to personally know each other in districts that average about 17,800 persons in size.

Congratulations, West Virginia, for this major step forward.

John Overington, from Martinsburg, has served longer than any other member in the West Virginia House of Delegate, serving from 1985 to 2018. He was also responsible for changing House rules so that all bills on passage are recorded votes, not unaccountable voice votes.

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