Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Circus is in town: Mason County flip! The Perfect Plan, and Snakes!

With the many problems in both the state and nation, one would surmise West Virginia's state legislature would have sought to avoid creating another problem, but it seems that is precisely what they have done.

After the 2010 census data was released, West Virginia's population remained at a level consistent to keep three members in the House of Representatives. However, the population shift within the state dictates that congressional lines must be redrawn to have relatively equal populations among districts (see: Baker v. Carr and Wesberry v. Sanders).

When the first major plan was passed by the state legislature (see figure below), the only real change to the current district setup was moving Mason County from the 2nd district to the 3rd. It's key feature was maintaining the status quo and the unspoken rule of protecting incumbent House members. The negative aspect of this approach was a difference of approximately 4,000 citizens from the most populous and least populous districts, which, according to law, must be accounted for.

Citizens in Jefferson County, who hoped to be separated from Kanawha County (its an East Coast / West Coast rivalry minus coasts and gangs), opted to fight the plan in courts to achieve a more desirable outcome.
After the West Virginia State Supreme Court upheld the plan, Jefferson County officials moved the fight to another arena, filing suit in federal district court.

Earlier this month, a panel of federal judges voted 2-1 that the Mason County flip was unconstitutional, as the second district 'snaked' across the state in an odd manner and did not meet he requirements of being a compact district. Moreover, the state did not adequately explain the deviation in population among the three districts. At present, the state is appealing the district court's decision directly to the United States Supreme Court.

While the court system hashes out the Mason County flip, the state legislature has been scrambling to discuss alternative plans, as ordered by the federal district court. In its decision, the Southern District court in West Virginia noted its preference for a redistricting plan that had been earlier proposed by state senator, John Unger (D-Berkeley).

Unger's plan created a unique map which proponents (mainly himself) dubbed 'The Perfect Plan'. The plan's (see above figure, on the right) strength lies in the division of population. Districts 1 and 2 each contain exactly 617,665 people, while district 3 would represent 617, 664 people.

His plan has been soundly rejected as a naked attempt to gerrymander, as it would place two Republican incumbents (Shelley Moore-Capito and David McKinley) in the same district. Critics also have asserted Unger's plan was also drawn to create that open seat for himself.

The Unger plan also divided up the few conservative strongholds within the state. Currently, district 2 contains Putnam and Kanawha County, coupled with he Eastern Panhandle. This has given Moore-Capito a strong base for the last ten years. Under the 'Perfect Plan', these areas would be divided among the three districts.

After objections to Unger's insanity, he has issued a new map -- the 'More Perfect Plan' (I swear I'm not making this up). The population splits are the same as before, but without as much messy county splits and threats to incumbents. The plan has merit, but doesn't meet the requirement of having the counties remain wholly within each district (required by the state constitution).

At this point, I'm wondering if Jefferson County officials had simply left the matter alone and accepted the Mason County flip. Also, this entire scenario has the feel that the Eastern Panhandle is holding the entire state hostage because it believes the current plan in the courts is untenable.

Under any of the three plans, the counties in the southern portion of the state can now argue they are too wide to be effectively represented. Why should the state kowtow to the Eastern Panhandle?

If Jefferson County doesn't feel adequately represented within the second district, support a candidate for the House from that region in the district.

In typical West Virginia fashion, what should be a relatively simple task has become convoluted because of individual or group preferences. The best solution is tied up in the courts.

Help us, Obi-wan Scalia. You're our only hope.

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