Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature.

After months of collecting public input, and many promises of transparency, West Virginia lawmakers are rushing to finish the redistricting process less than two weeks out from a potential special session.

This year’s redistricting process will be among the most consequential in West Virginia’s recent history, with the state set to be divided into 100 single-member House of Delegates districts instead of the current 67, some of which currently have multiple delegates. The state will also lose a Congressional seat, so lawmakers will redraw the boundaries for its future two U.S. House representatives. And they’ll also redraw state Senate districts based on the updated population, and aim to do so largely among county lines.

It will be the first time in more than eight decades that Republicans will dominate the process with control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion.

This week, draft maps are finally beginning to be released.

For months, the heads of the House and Senate redistricting committees, Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, and Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, have promised transparency, inviting public input ahead of the map-drawing process. While no options for Senate redistricting were discussed in committee meetings Thursday, lawmakers unveiled more than a dozen different versions of the congressional map. But there was only one map that the House committee put forward for its own changed delegate district boundaries, and both onlookers and members of the Democratic Party, who feel largely excluded from the delegate district map-making process, have expressed skepticism that House leaders will follow through on these promises

“We’ve taken care to utilize much of the public feedback we’ve gotten,” Howell said when the map was unveiled.

But according to Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, for Democrats serving on the House Redistricting Committee, Thursday was many of their first times seeing the proposed delegate district map. With Trump indicating a special session may be called by the governor on Oct. 11 for all the maps to be voted into law, they have less than two weeks to voice any opposition they may have.

“I think what we have here is the result of politicians getting together and putting their own political interests ahead of their constituents,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. Pushkin could face a tough primary, as it appears from mailing addresses that he and Delegate Jim Barach, D-Kanawha, have been drawn into the same district.

Howell said that he invited all delegates, Democrats included, to come view the map and give input on the areas they’re familiar with, making sure their constituents’ needs were met.

The rush is because maps need to be voted on by the full Legislature and approved by the governor one year before the next elections so potential candidates can figure out if they want to move into a different and more favorable district.

Sen. Michael Woelfel, D-Cabell, a member of the Senate redistricting committee, said that “people who are gonna run in the 2022 election need to see what district they’re in and residency has to be established for a year” prior to election. Stretching out the redistricting process any longer would make it nearly impossible for lawmakers to move into more favorable or familiar districts once boundaries are established. Or to leave a district where they may have to primary a colleague they now share it with.

The process was also rushed because the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the release of necessary Census Bureau data from April to August.

“I’ve been a little disappointed with the process so far,” said Eli Baumwell, advocacy director at the West Virginia chapter of the ACLU. The fact that maps are being presented just weeks before they’ll likely be voted on before the entire legislative body “lends itself at least to the appearance of the maps being somewhat of a foregone conclusion,” he added.

For his part, Howell said he wished he’d had more time for public comment. “Instead of the preliminary map being out for a week and a half, I’d like it out for two months,” Howell said. “But could we have done anything differently? I don’t believe so.”

But once a delegate district map is drawn, making changes — especially in a time crunch — can be tricky.

“If I said, ‘Mon County needs to be x, y, and z,’ that means the district next door needs to be changed, and that catapults,” said Ken Martis, professor emeritus of geography at West Virginia University and a redistricting expert. “If they’re drawing nice districts with equal populations, and you wanna change one, that has a ripple effect for everything else. There has to be some time for public input.” The feat would not be impossible, Martis said, but would require individuals with deep knowledge of their local areas to study the maps and weigh in soon.

The House has yet to set a date for its next committee meeting, with Howell saying that he wants to give the public time to study and react to the current maps. By the time Thursday morning’s committee meeting started, there were nearly 40 submissions of public comment logged on the legislature’s redistricting site.

Baumwell also voiced another concern about transparency: that Howell has been having closed-door meetings with his colleagues, soliciting suggestions for how they think districts in their area should be divided up. A private meeting between lawmakers to discuss legislation is not uncommon and is not against the law, but according to Baumwell, “the fact that they are soliciting input from legislators without making that part of the public record is really concerning.”

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said she had such a meeting with Howell, and described it as terse, with Howell and a single staffer listening and responding to little.

Deliberations in the Senate committee which will draw state Senate districts, have been slower and more public. Trump says the committee will meet multiple times over the next week to discuss the pros and cons of maps submitted by both senators and citizens.

The process, however, may leave little time for the public to respond to a map that is agreed upon.

“That’s the rub right there,” said Woelfel, who praised Trump’s handling of the deliberations, citing what he believes to be a lack of political motivation.

Over the next week, lawmakers will scramble to analyze the proposed delegate district map, and decide on a congressional map and senatorial district map. Similarly, both committee heads invited interested members of the public to submit feedback of their own.

How transparent the process will be, and how much feedback from public hearings was taken into account, remains to be seen. Experts, like Martis, are still working to analyze the maps and their implications. 

“On the surface, they’re saying the right things,” Martis said. “Let’s see if they’ll do the right things.”

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.