This is the fourth and last installment on the redistricting of congressional and state legislative seats which must be undertaken by the legislature this year.
In 1950, West Virginia had 2.2 million people and the good old U-S-of-A had 150 million. West Virginia was considered a medium-size state and had six members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, our state's population has dropped to 1.8 million and the nation has doubled in size to over 300 million people. We now have only three members of the U.S. House.
Twenty years ago, when we dropped from four congresspeople to three, the legislature carved the state up into a northern district, a middle one and a southern one. This put the Eastern Panhandle in the same congressional district as Charleston. I was not in the legislature at that time, but I was one of a large number of Eastern Panhandlers who screamed bloody murder at what had been done to us.
Drawing this district, which stretches from the depths of the Ohio River (West Virginia owns the Ohio) to the peaks of the Blue Ridge put us in a district with which I believe we have little in common. It also meant we would most likely have a congressional representative from Charleston, and he or she would defer to the Capital whenever our interests did not coincide with its.
I attempted during the last redistricting nine and a half years ago to completely redraw the congressional districts so that the northern two-thirds of the state would have an east-west split, not a north-south one. I believed then (and still do now) that we would have more in common with the Morgantown area and the Northern Panhandle than we do with Charleston. I lost that fight big time, in part because no other legislators from our area thought the fight was worth the effort.
Now the tables are turned. Some legislators from our area want to make that fight, and I don't think we should. My reasoning? Ten years from now West Virginia will lose another congressional seat (we're coming close to losing it this time, but we are apparently going to keep our three seats by a whisker). Since we'll have to do a major redrawing of congressional districts in 2011, I think we should leave them pretty much as is this time.
Plus, our area has now gained enough population that we have a legitimate chance of electing someone from one of the eastern three counties to the second district seat, should Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito decide to give it up at some future date. If the districts are kept generally the same, this chance will be augmented by redistricting.
Why? The second district has gained population at the expense of the first and the third. If the districts are kept the same except for necessary tweaking, the second will have to give about 25,000 of its population to the third and about half that to the first. Because all territory in a district must be contiguous the population given to each of those districts will have to come from somewhere near Charleston.
Some leaders of the West Virginia Democratic Party have suggested privately that they might also like to significantly redraw congressional districts this year, to make it more difficult for incumbent Congresswoman Capito to be re-elected. Congresswoman Capito has regularly demonstrated in elections that the current second district suits her just fine.
I believe that the applecart of these state Democratic leaders was upset by last month's election. The first district (the northern one) elected a republican, Former Delegate David McKinley of Ohio County. And the senior member of West Virginia's delegation, democrat Nick Rahall of the third district (the southern one), won only after a tough fight.
Weakening Capito would entail moving republican voters out of the second to either the first district or the third and perhaps moving some democrats from either of those into the second. Switching voters between the second and the first districts would merely strengthen one republican while weakening another. Switching them between the second and the third would only weaken the remaining democrat.
I predict these statewide Democratic Party leaders will re-think their strategy.