After months of promises of transparency during the West Virginia Legislature’s redistricting process, state senators are considering a hyper-partisan map that was crafted behind closed doors and introduced at the last minute.
Senators held hearings around the state. They made a point of how much they valued public input. A committee advanced a new map for the state’s 17 senatorial districts, with bipartisan support.
Then at the 11th hour on Wednesday night, a different map was posted as an amendment on the Legislature’s website.
The amendment, which had no senator’s name attached to it, essentially proposed an entirely new map. It was to be considered the next morning, during a Thursday floor session, but — with the GOP caucus deep in negotiations — senators agreed to postpone a vote until Friday.
The newly drawn House of Delegates district map, approved by that chamber on Wednesday, also drew complaints of hypocrisy after Republican House leaders had promised transparency and bipartisanship. The map divided urban areas, which are more likely to vote Democratic, and pitted Democratic legislators against one another.
But the last-minute state Senate map was so partisan that Ken Martis, professor emeritus of geography at West Virginia University, and a national expert on gerrymandering, said Thursday, “I don’t know how they could honestly go to sleep and do this. I honestly mean that.”
The Senate map amendment would divide Charleston into three districts with long tails connecting parts of the city to rural, more conservative neighboring counties. It similarly appears to divide the cities of Huntington, Morgantown and Martinsburg, although the Senate did not provide street-level details of the map.
“I’m not happy about it,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, whose district currently includes the South Hills and Kanawha City areas of Charleston. Eric Nelson, the other Republican senator in Takubo’s district, was on a previously scheduled European vacation, according to a spokesperson, and did not vote.
On its face, the map amendment ignores West Virginia’s state constitutional mandate that redistricting take county boundaries into account, something that Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, pushed for repeatedly at committee meetings and public hearings. Residents who had attended previous hearings of the Legislature’s joint redistricting committee also pushed for that.
Trump, the chair of the Senate redistricting committee, had said earlier he hoped that the introduction of a last-minute amendment “would not allow for the level of public transparency that I think is important in this process.” Ultimately, that’s what ended up happening.
On Thursday, Trump said that, while the redistricting committee he chaired was able to come to a consensus, “this, again, is the work of the caucus,” adding that many people have pitched ideas. “No one has coalesced around one,” he said.
Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said “I don’t do interviews” when asked for comment outside his office Thursday evening.
Democrats accused Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, of drawing the map, but Karnes said it was the work of many Senate Republicans. Still, he defended it. “The constitution also moved in the direction of compactness,” Karnes said. “And in some cases it’s more compact if the county was split.”
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, panned the amendment map as well. He said there was a chance some Republicans would come together with Democrats to draw a new map, using the one passed out of committee as a basis, and pass it on bipartisan lines.
But he acknowledged that’s up to the Republicans. “We’ve sort of been on the outskirts of this,” Baldwin said.
If the map passes, Baldwin said, it will likely result in a lawsuit.
Ever since the Senate and House committees on Redistricting, their leaders, Trump and Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral,, have promised transparency and bipartisanship when it came to drawing new political maps.
“I don’t want the redistricting process to be a process that is utilized to confer partisan advantage or disadvantage on anybody,” Trump said in June, shortly after being named the chair of the Senate redistricting committee.
Similarly, Howell promised that the House redistricting process would be transparent from the get-go, and allow for citizen input on all decisions. Even after a contentious floor session this week where the House rejected several Democratic amendments and passed his committee’s map along party lines, Howell still called the process “as transparent as possible.”
But in the final weeks of the redistricting process, Republican lawmakers kept citizens in the dark while they made decisions behind closed doors that could have large impacts on the power of West Virginians’ votes, and the fairness of their elections.
House Republicans pass a map on partisan lines
The first chance members of the public had to comment in person on the proposed House redistricting plan was a public hearing at 8 a.m. on Wednesday,, although a version of the map had been posted online since Sept. 30. Lawmakers had also held 16 public hearings since July, but participants had no maps to comment on.
Anyone who wanted to speak about the map had to be at the Capitol by 7:50 a.m. in the middle of the week, with two days’ notice. Nine people showed up.
“It’s really disappointing to see in the proposed maps that so many communities and towns across the state have been unnecessarily divided,” said Julie Archer, the coordinator of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections, at the public hearing.
Kathy Ferguson, a Dunbar resident, urged lawmakers to keep Dunbar and the unincorporated area, Institute, in a single district around West Virginia State University, a historically Black college.
Nyoka Baker Chapman, a board member of the Huntington League of Women Voters, offered suggestions to keep her home city together. “I hope that you can clean this up before it’s all over,” she added.
None of the speakers’ suggestions was heeded. The redistricting map passed the House exactly as it was just hours after the public hearing, along partisan lines. Multiple amendments offered by Democrats were shot down.
Even with the multiple public hearings before a map was unveiled, the process, Chapman alleged, was far from transparent. “Without being able to see the maps in process, there was not an ability to have authentic public input,” she said before Wednesday’s hearing.
Under a 2018 law, the state had to move 67 delegate districts, some with multiple members, to 100 single-member districts.
Experts warned that the move from 67 to 100 delegate districts could help small communities, but adding more lines to be drawn in an inherently partisan process could lead to gerrymandering.
On the House floor Wednesday, Democrats warned that counties like Cabell and Kanawha, where Democrats have historically performed well, were being divided.
Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, introduced an amendment to redraw maps around Huntington, but was “reluctantly”rebutted by his fellow Cabell delegate, Republican Matt Rohrbach.
Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, introduced an amendment she said she wrote in response to feedback she heard at the earlier public hearing.
All told, six amendments proposed by Democrats were shot down on partisan lines. The map passed by a largely partisan 79-20 vote, with one member absent. Democrats Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, Joey Garcia, D-Marion, and Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, voted with the majority.. Republican Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, was the sole Republican to vote against it. Larry Pack, R-Kanawha, was hospitalized and did not vote.
“This plan will result in representation in the House that is both more uniform and more equitable for every citizen of the state,” said Howell.
Howell also maintained that the process was “as transparent as possible” given the circumstances.
By tradition, the Senate and House rubber-stamp each other’s redistricting plans before they go to the governor. If Gov. Jim Justice were to veto either map, legislators could override him with a simple majority vote in each house.
Congressional maps pass with relative ease
As for the U.S. House of Representatives, both chambers of the statehouse approved congressional maps, dividing the state into a southern 1st District and a northern 2nd District that includes both panhandles
Because West Virginia went from three U.S. House representatives to two after the latest census, incumbent congressmen David McKinley (from Ohio County) and Alex Mooney (from Jefferson County) are now both in the northern district, and seem set to face each other in a Republican primary. Both have announced their intention to run in 2022.
Republican Carol Miller of Cabell County, the only incumbent in the newly drawn southern district, has also said she plans to run in 2022.
The congressional maps passed with little disagreement on either the House or Senate floor.
Clarification: This story was updated on 10/15/2020 to more clearly reflect Sen. Baldwin’s comments about potential litigation over a Senate redistricting map.