Voters in some parts of West Virginia will have fewer members of the Legislature to vote for next year as the House of Delegates has eliminated multimember districts. It’s a change that has been in the making for decades, and now voters can see whether West Virginia benefits from a practice that is normal in most states.
West Virginia’s constitution was adopted in 1872. It provided for a House of Delegates with 65 members and a Senate with 24 members. According to the Legislature’s website, in 1901 House membership was increased to 86 members. From 1916 to 1952 the House had 94 members. Membership was increased to 100 in 1951 with each county being assured of having at least one delegate. That last provision was eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decision in Reynolds vs. Sims in 1964.
For the lifetimes of modern voters, the House has been a mix of districts of different sizes. In the first decade of this century, one House district in Kanawha County had seven members. According to Republicans, large districts such as that allowed Democrats to keep weaker members who ran as part of a slate and who voted in lockstep with party leadership.
Other people had different complaints about multimember districts. One county commissioner in Mason County often complained that his county went years without a resident serving in the Legislature because the county was divided in a way its residents didn’t comprise a majority of any one district. That was remedied eventually.
The House had been making a slow move toward single-member districts for decades, but it never got there until this year. In the 1970s, the 100 members were divided into 36 districts. In the 1980s, the number of districts was increased to 40. Then came 56 districts in the 1990s, 58 in the 2000s and now 67.
Single-member districts had been a goal of Republicans for years. Now we see whether those districts improve the quality of legislation coming out of the Capitol.
One other thing about West Virginia is that the state has a lot of legislators per capita. With 100 House members and 34 senators representing 1,793,716 people, that’s one legislator per 13,386 residents. Kentucky has 138 legislators for 4,505,836 residents, or one per 32,651. Ohio has 132 for 11,799,448, or one per 89,390.
If West Virginia were to go back to the 89 legislators authorized in 1872, that would be one per 20,154 residents — closer to Kentucky’s ratio but still much less than Ohio’s. Does a state with a population as small as West Virginia’s need so many legislators? Determining exactly how many legislators are needed to deal with all the questions confronting a modern state government would be an interesting debate.