The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 23, 2011

Lawmaker says multi-delegate districts unconstitutional

By Taylor Kuykendall
Register-Herald Reporter

BECKLEY — Every West Virginian sends two state senators and one delegate to represent them in Charleston. Unless, as is the case in some districts, they send more. Certain districts have as many as four senators or seven House members representing their constituents.

In the 27th District, which encompasses Raleigh County and much of Summers County, citizens elect five representatives to send to the House in contrast to the people of the 23rd district, who elect only one House representative.

There are 58 districts in West Virginia; 36 of them are single-member districts. While 26 members represent their own district, 22 other districts are split 64 ways.

The constitutionality of those districts and the way members are offered has never been constitutionality tested.

Some lawmakers claim multi-member districts offer a number of disadvantages to the citizens, while offering advantages to incumbents. Republican Delegate Rick Snuffer of the 27th district, poised to benefit from being a part of one of those multi-member districts, says he doesn’t want the advantage.

“I’m considering legal action, as many are across the state,” Snuffer said. “Some don’t think it would be effective, and they are approaching it on a federal level and looking at some different things.”

George Carenbauer, a former chairman of the state Democratic party, has taken an interest in redistricting and has been studying the issue, and passing some of that information on to lawmakers. In one of his presentations, he points out that districts should maintain communities of interest, geographic compactness, respect for political boundaries, racial fairness and approximately equal population.

He said the current districting system isn’t logical and is based on a modified version of a county-based system that didn’t take population into consideration.

“We have a 100 delegates, but we don’t have 100 districts,” Carenbauer said. “It’s all an outgrowth of the original county system kind of morphing and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In fact, it doesn’t make any sense.”

West Virginia, Carenbauer said, is nearly in a league of its own in terms of how many members may be in one district. Ten states have multiple member districts, but of those only three have more than two members. Only New Hampshire and West Virginia assign any district more than three representatives to one district.

“One of the things this causes is to happen is you can say ‘how many delegates can live on your street?’” Carenbauer said. “My brother (in Wheeling) can say two. Somebody in Martinsburg can say one. Somebody in Charleston can say seven. Another part of Charleston can only say one.”

Carenbauer points out numerous advantages to single-member districts. He said not only does it grant equal voting power, but it also lowers the costs of campaigns, eliminates inter-party squabbling, brings representatives closer to the people and increases accountability. He also points out that federal law requires single-member districts in the U.S. and calls multiple-member districts a “political anachronism.”

“From a good-government perspective, the single-member district concept makes sense and it’s time has come ... in West Virginia,” Carenbauer said.

He added that he would recommend an independent body outside of the Legislature to redistrict and eliminate self-interest in the redistricting process, although it is too late to do so for the upcoming special session on redistricting.

The notion that multiple member districts are good for Democrats, the majority party in West Virginia, is also not true Carenbauer said. He points to closer parities in straight-ticket voting, less Democrat-registration in the state and an increasing number of Republicans representing West Virginia at the federal level.

“(Democrats benefiting from multi-member districts) had been true, but that is changing,” Carenbauer said. “West Virginia is changing substantially.”

Snuffer agrees multi-member districts are unconstitutional, and in his fight to even the playing field for “equal representation,” he and others are leaving all options on the table, including legal action.

While the Democratic leadership in the House will have the majority-right to draw districting lines, Snuffer, a Republican, said his issue isn’t about party politics. If Democrats want to draw the lines to benefit their own party, he added, there is no legal argument against it.

“If Republicans want a bigger place at the redistricting table, the answer is simple: win more seats,” Snuffer said.

Currently 40 states have single-member districts, but Snuffer said that doesn’t mean anything either. Snuffer said the argument is about getting all delegates to follow their oath to uphold the state Constitution.

Snuffer said he believes the court’s interpretation of the state Constitution backs up single-member districts.

“Every citizen shall be entitled to equal representation in the government, and, in all apportionments of representation, equality of numbers of those entitled thereto, shall as far as practicable, be preserved,” the constitution states.

Snuffer said that should mean that every citizen appoints the same number of House and Senate representatives in Charleston. Currently, he is considering filing a legal action that would ask the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus requiring that the House redistricting plan provide an equal number of representatives for every voter.

The idea is gaining popularity on both sides of the aisle and from various levels of government. Sen. Joe Manchin, who recently left the position of governor, and current acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin have both announced support of single-member districts.

Now that the results of the 2010 Census are in, lawmakers have the ability to redistrict the state to ensure each district represents an equal number of voters.

Snuffer said the idea is to fix the “equal representation issue” early so that legal action is not followed after. If the constitutionality of the districts were challenged after the new districts were drawn, Snuffer said, it would be a greater expense to the taxpayer to redraw the districts again.

Snuffer, who said he is not sure if he will lead or take part in the legal action to ensure districts have an even number of representatives, said he would be satisfied if he could just get a commitment from House Speaker Rick Thompson. Snuffer added that it is not clear if he has legal standing to contest multi-member districts as a representative of a multi-member district.

Single-member districts are not the only solution to making the system pass “constitutional muster,” Snuffer said.

One solution proposed cuts to the number of representatives in both houses by one member. The proposal offers 33 districts with one senator and three House members each.

Snuffer said while he would not vote for any proposals containing multi-member districts, because it would be “bad government,” he would withdraw constitutional arguments as long as constituents in West Virginia get the same number of representatives.

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com