By Taylor Kuykendall
The debate between supporters of single-member districts and those defending multiple-member districts continued to dominate Senate redistricting task force hearings at a stop in Beckley Wednesday evening.
Local officials and citizens attended the hearing held at the Tamarack to express their own views as both branches of the West Virginia Legislature prepare to submit new district plans to fit data from the 2010 Census.
The discussion was led by Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, the majority leader. He said there has been a good turnout at each of the meetings, sometimes attracting up to 125 people but averaging about 60. The idea behind the 12 meetings is to allow citizens to provide input on redistricting efforts.
“This is so critical, because expecting somebody to come to you and give you information is one thing, but going out and knocking on their door, and inviting them to a meeting close to their house is something different,” Unger said. “This gives them an opportunity to come out and make their point.”
Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, has also been contributing to the work of the task force. He said these public hearings are where “the rubber meets the road.”
“I think the Senate is going to step up and do what’s right and make sure that every district is drawn in a fair and meaningful manner,” Green said.
Unger said a perfect example of public participation was at Beckley’s meeting. As one man described the possibility of including a portion of the more rural areas of Raleigh County into a Senate district with Boone County, another citizen challenged his thoughts.
“I hope you weren’t listening to him,” she told the panel.
Summers County Commissioner Jack Woodrum expressed a specific concern about his county being split. While he stressed he was not criticizing current leadership, he said the current system makes Summers County voters feel less powerful on Election Day.
“The voters of Summers County never elect their representative,” he said. “Our surrounding counties — we are greatly outnumbered, regardless of how we vote. Raleigh, Greenbrier or Mercer, depending on if you’re talking about the House or Senate, they are the ones that make the decision of what our representation will be.”
Participation from local officials and citizens is one thing some have criticized the House for leaving out of the redistricting equation. While the Senate is traveling to gather public opinion, the House will host all hearings and meetings regarding redistricting in Charleston.
Unger said he has extended an offer to majority leader Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, to make the rest of the redistricting meetings joint meetings, but Unger said he has not yet responded.
One issue that has come up is the creation of more compact districts. Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, represents a long, vertical district that extends more than 120 miles from Fayette County to Upshur County. Fayette County Commissioner Matthew Wender spoke at the hearing, requesting more compact districts focused on communities of similar interests.
Laird said he thinks more compact districts could have advantages.
“It certainly has its challenges,” Laird said. “The folks in Upshur County have the right to representation as much as the folks in my backyard.”
Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, said he enjoyed the open talks with citizens and recognized the importance of redistricting.
“People are interested in who represents them,” Browning said. “I used to represent a district that included a small portion of Mercer County, and all I heard over there was that they don’t know who represents them. It’s important for people to know who to call when they have a problem.”
State Senate, House and congressional districts are all on the table for redistricting, but the House has attracted the most attention thus far.
The only Raleigh County House member on the recently announced House redistricting committee is Delegate Rick Moye, D-Raleigh. He said he saw advantages to both single-member and multi-member districts but would let his constituents decide the issue.
“I represent the folks of Raleigh County — it’s not what Rick wants. It’s what the people want,” Moye said. “I’m around people all the time, every day, and they are not a bit bashful about telling me what they think, but no one has told me anything about redistricting. I don’t know there’s a great interest.”
Delegate Rick Snuffer, R-Raleigh, had previously said that if each district did not have the same number of representatives, there would likely be a state constitution challenge. He reiterated those comments after Wednesday’s meeting.
“It’s not right. It’s not about who’s most powerful,” Snuffer said. “It should be about what’s right, and everyone should have the same representation.”
Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, has been outspoken in support of single-member districts. He said multiple-member districts, with an unbalanced number of seats in various districts does not comply with the one-man, one-vote principle.
O’Neal said multi-member districts, varying from one to seven members per district, give some individual voters more representatives than other voters. The current system, he said, is antiquated and only good for incumbents.
“What people forget sometimes is that people think they own their seat, but it’s the people’s seat,” O’Neal said. “There is no John O’Neal seat, there is no (Delegate) Linda Sumner seat, there is no Ricky Moye seat. These are the people of Raleigh County, and they are their seats. We need to worry less about protecting our seats and worry more about doing what’s right.”
Sumner said she is trying to find out more from the constituents as well, and she would be voting per their will. For now, personally, she said, she is in support of single-member districts.
“I can represent a smaller number of people much more efficiently than a larger number of people,” she said. “... It brings you closer to your constituents.”
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