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Understanding one-person, one-vote

By Staff | Jul 8, 2011

As the legislature’s special session on redistricting approaches, attention (and tension) heightens over the question of “single-member districts.”

Of the 50 states only nine have districts that elect more than one representative to a district in the lower houses of their legislatures. Nebraska has a unicameral (one house) legislature. The remaining 40 have only “single-member” districts.

Of the nine, six have only single or two-member districts in their lower houses. Maryland has singles and threes. Only West Virginia and New Hampshire have districts with more than three representatives. Our state has districts from one to seven members (except no six-member one). I think this is bad on two counts.

Election dynamics are different with different sizes of districts. However many representatives to a district a state has, I think all districts should be the same.

But I am convinced from studying this issue since I was a political science student at Shepherd College in the 1960s that single-member districts represent the truest manifestation of “one-person, one-vote.” That concept was laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court while I was such a student.

The single-member district gives the most direct connection between representative and represented. There is clear accountability from the legislator to his or her constituents. And however many members a lower house has, the single-member district is the smallest district possible. A two-seat district must contain twice as many people as a single seater and each additional representative in a district must increase the size of that district by the size of a single-member one.

Thirty years ago there were fewer than a dozen single-member districts in the entire 100-seat House of Delegates. Most of Jefferson County constituted a single-seat district, but Shepherdstown was in a three-seat district that included all of Berkeley County and all of Morgan County. Tom Steptoe, who represented the single-seat district in Jefferson (and who later had a distinguished career as a local judge) used the 1981 redistricting to divide the area into all single-seat districts. We gained a seat so that meant five single-member districts covered the three counties.

In 1991 the legislature created many more single-member districts and reduced the size of some of the larger ones. Kanawha County (Charleston) had 13 members elected at large over a county that then had a population of well over 200,000 people (it has about 193,000 now). The total number of districts went from 40 to 56. I considered that significant progress toward an all single-member district arrangement. But we made little progress in 2001. We now have 58 districts, 37 of which are single-member. The 14 easternmost districts are all single seat districts.

There is some less-than-conclusive evidence that multi-member districts result in a marginally greater number of females being elected. But that to me is countered by clear and convincing evidence that ethnic minorities fare much better in single-member districts than in multi-member ones. Thus every state that is under the rules of the federal Voting Rights Act (because of previous discriminatory voting practices) must have single-member districts for both houses of its legislature.

A few academics argue for multi-member districts with either “proportional representation” (PR) or “cumulative voting” (CV) or both. Each of these voting schemes is used to some degree in other countries.

PR reserves certain seats for certain parties. If a given party gets 23 percent of the vote it gets 23 percent of the seats. Britain just rejected this idea in a referendum. This theory presumes that ideology is all-important and that geography is irrelevant. For that reason I’m certain it will never fly in the good ole’ U-S-of-A. Geography is historically THE basis for representation here.

CV allows the voter in a multi-member district to cast all of his or her votes for one candidate. This avoids one of the problems with multi-member districts – many candidates ask their supporters to partially disenfranchise themselves and “single-shot” the candidate they most strongly support. Illinois actually used CV until 1970, when it was junked.

Which brings us to the realization that multi-member districts are relics of the nineteenth century. They are antiquated, regressive and backward. PR and CV are attempts to reduce the impact of obvious weaknesses of multi-member districts. Single-member districts are simpler.

Even if one thinks multi-member districts have value, with or without PR or CV, I think they would only make sense for the upper house of a bicameral (two-house) legislature. The upper house is supposed to represent broad regional concerns, not parochial ones.

But the lower house of a bicameral legislature is supposed to be the “people’s house.” I think the people’s house should be as close to the people as possible, and that means single-member districts.

I doubt we can get to all single-member districts this year. Some representatives in multi-member districts live right next to each other. It would be nigh impossible to draw lines so that each was in a single-member district without another incumbent. I think it would be wrong to force two people who have each been legitimately elected to try to knock each other off. It’s one thing for a challenger to knock me off – I’m fair game. But it would be wrong to force say, Delegate Tiffany Lawrence and me into the same single-member district unless our area were losing seats.

But I think we can and should make major progress this year toward getting all single-member districts by 2021. I will propose a plan when the legislature convenes in special session for redistricting that will have between 80 and 90 single-member districts and six to 10 dual districts.