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Some progress on single-member districts

By Staff | Aug 12, 2011

The legislature completed redistricting the State Senate, the House of Delegates and West Virginia’s three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives late Friday, Aug. 5.

The House spent much time debating the question of single member districts. As regular readers of this column know, I strongly support this idea. While we made some progress, I don’t think we made anywhere near enough.

Anticipating that the plan adopted by the House Redistricting Committee would not move us very far toward single member districts, I had prepared an amendment that would have created 80 single member districts and 10 two-seat districts. Delegate Tiffany Lawrence told me she would support it, but I chose to not offer the plan because it clearly did not have the votes.

Currently (the new districts take effect for the 2012 election) the easternmost 14 delegate districts in our state are all single member. But only 36 of the 100 members of the House of Delegates represent single-member districts. The rest are all elected in districts of various sizes from two to seven members (except there is no six member district). There are 58 total districts.

The new plan increases the number of single member districts to 47. There will be 67 total districts. The most controversial change was the breakup of the one seven-member district into a four-member and a three.

The original plan drafted by the Redistricting Committee kept the seven-seat district together. This is the most number of members of a state legislative body elected together in a district in the entire nation other than in New Hampshire. That state has a thirteen-member district in its State House of Representatives.

Keeping the seven-member district together was very unpopular among the membership of the House of Delegates. Support for the concept of single-member districts has been growing among members of the House, although I think that support still falls slightly short of a majority. But most supporters of multi-member districts don’t think they should be any larger than three members.

As soon as the Redistricting Committee’s bill hit the floor of the House Tuesday afternoon a movement began to break up the seven-member district. It is located in Kanawha County, the state’s largest county and home of the capital city of Charleston.

This change was adamantly opposed by some, but not all, of the incumbents in that district. Currently there are six Democrats and one Republican representing it. One of those Democrats, Doug Skaff, joined with the lone Republican to propose a four-way split (a three-seat, a two-seat and two singles, called the “3-2-1-1” plan). Four Democrats were strongly opposed and the sixth Democrat, Mark Hunt, was on the fence. This led to 72 hours of some of the best drama I’ve experienced in my 20-plus years as a member of the House of Delegates.

Each of the two opposing groups of Kanawhans began to lobby their fellow members to support their side in the fight. The Democratic leadership of the House opposed the change, which is to be expected. It is customary and I think proper for the leadership to support the work of its committees. Normally the leadership prevails, but not this time.

About a half-dozen very bright freshmen and sophomore Democrats (including Delegate Lawrence) rallied to Skaff’s side. Another half-dozen grizzled veteran Democrats (including me) immediately joined them. Within hours we knew we had at least 31 of the 35 Republicans with us. We were only a few votes short on Tuesday night.

The next day more Democrats began to join us (giving us, we believed, the 51 votes necessary to win a floor fight). By afternoon Minority Leader Tim Armstead (who also represents Kanawha County but is in a different district than the seven-member one) assured Skaff that all 35 members of his caucus were solidly on board.

It’s a rule of thumb in the House that in order to be assured of winning a fight on the floor you need to go into it knowing you have at least 55 votes. A last-minute event (like a particularly powerful speech by someone on the other side) might change the equation. We now knew we had those 55 votes.

The leadership asked Skaff if he would be willing to compromise. He said he would. He and Eric Nelson (his Republican ally in the seven-member district) suggested a “3-3-1” (two three-seat districts and a single). That proposal brought Hunt on board.

But the four other Democrats were adamant that the seven-seat district be kept intact. The assistant Democratic “whips” (vote counters) reported to the leadership that we now had close to 60 votes. By Thursday night everybody presumed we’d have a vote on Friday and the “3-3’1” plan would win big.

Speaker Rick Thompson and his leadership team finally convinced the four recalcitrants that the proverbial handwriting was on the wall. The leadership suggested a “4-3” compromise (a four-seat district and a three-seat one).

Delegate Skaff could easily have said no and beaten the leadership and the reluctants on the floor. But he demonstrated I think superior leadership skills by accepting the “4-3.” It accomplished his purpose, which was to break up the seven-seat district.