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West Virginia senatorial districts discussed

April 8, 2011
Delegate John Doyle

Last week we talked about what the new map of House of Delegates districts might look like for the Eastern Panhandle after the Legislature completes the required redistricting. Now let's take a look at the State Senate.

All representative districts (federal, state and local) must be drawn every 10 years so that they comply with the "one-person, one-vote" requirement laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s. Every now and then a district will be found to have gained or lost such a small number of people (compared to the gain or loss of the total population of a state or local jurisdiction) that the lines for that district need not be redrawn. But this is rare.

West Virginia has 17 state senatorial districts, each with two senators. Presently the district including Jefferson County also includes most of Berkeley County. Jefferson constitutes about 37 percent of this district, which grew from 111,000 in 2000 to 149,000 in 2010 (almost 34 percent). Since the state only grew by 2.5 percent during that time, our senate district is way overpopulated now.

The "optimal" population for a senate district is now 109,000 (up from just over 106,000 in 2000). The optimal population is the number of people a district would have if all districts were of exactly equal size. Federal court guidelines require that the smallest district in a legislative body to be no smaller than 90 percent of the largest district. If the spread were an equal 5 percent each way from the optimal number the greatest number of people a senatorial district could have for this year's redistricting is 114,450 and the smallest number is 103,550.

So Jefferson County will be approximately half of a senate district after this year's redistricting. Depending on what the population of the new district is Jefferson could comprise anywhere from 47 to 51.5 percent of it. The next district over will be trickier to draw.

That district is now comprised of the southwestern corner of Berkeley County and all of Morgan, Hampshire, Hardy, Pendleton, Randolph and Pocahontas counties, plus portions of Grant and Upshur counties. Pocahontas, Randolph and Pendleton counties each cover a very large land area and have relatively few people for their size. They are collectively the heart of the Monongahela National forest.

This will change considerably, and will assuredly not include the residences of either of the two senators currently representing the district. One new senator will be elected in 2012 and the other in 2014, since state senators serve four year terms and those terms are "staggered." Walt Helmick of Pocahontas County, who was re-elected in 2010, will continue to represent all of the current district until 2014, since these districts are election districts (redistricting does not take effect for a district until the next election after the redistricting is completed).

The portion of Berkeley County not included in the senate district with Jefferson will comprise a senate district with all of Morgan and all of Hampshire, plus either all of Hardy or a part of Mineral. The land area covered by this district will be less than half of the land area covered by the current district, since it will no longer have Pocahontas, Pendleton or Randolph.

Anywhere from 44,000 to 54,000 of Berkeley County's people could be included in the district with Morgan and Hampshire. That depends of course on how much of it is included with Jefferson. This decision will then dictate what additional territory will be placed in the Berkeley-Morgan-Hampshire district.

A major change must be made in Kanawha County, the state's largest in population and the location of the state captial, Charleston. Kanawha has long had four state senators elected from within its borders. It has two districts, but the county is not divided. Each district covers the entire county, one being superimposed on the other. Voters choose a senator from one and a senator from the other every two years. Kanawha County's leaders have steadfastly opposed dividing the county geographically.

Kanawha's population has now dropped to the point where it can no longer support two full senate districts. Our state's constitution says that in any state senate district covering more than one county both senators may not reside in the same county.

So Kanawha will no longer have four senators residing within its borders. In order for Kanawha to keep three of them as residents the geography of the county will have to be divided, and one of the districts will have to include territory from a neighboring county. One of the senators elected would have to reside in that neighboring county. Were both districts to continue to cover the same territory, then only two senators could reside in Kanawha. So I think the good folk of Kanwha will agree to territorial division.

Many argue that a rule requiring certain representatives to live in a certain county or magisterial district is a violation of "one-person-one-vote." All of Cabell County's population of 96,000 is included with 8,000 people of Wayne County (whose total population is 42,000). Yet one senator from that district must reside in Wayne. This provision of our state constitution will continue unless and until a federal court says otherwise.

Next week we'll take up the redistricting of our state's three members of the U.S. House of Representatives.



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