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Redistricting maps take shape at Capitol

Charleston Daily Mail (WV) - Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Author: LAWRENCE MESSINA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

West Virginia lawmakers are considering new maps for the state's congressional districts, while the legal fight continues over the one struck down by a panel of federal judges this month as unconstitutional. 

Several Senate leaders plan to introduce one such alternative Monday. It would keep all three U.S. House incumbents in separate districts, but significantly reshape two of their territories. 

The changes would include uniting the northern and eastern panhandles into the 1st District, linked by Monongalia and Marion counties. That district would also include the Potomac Highlands region. This redrawing would separate Kanawha County, the state's most populous and home to the state capital, from the Eastern Panhandle. 

The plaintiffs in the ongoing federal challenge, the panhandle's Jefferson County Commission and Kanawha County lawyer Thornton Cooper, seek such a remedy. They trace their opposition to the 1990s-era redistricting, when these two areas were first drawn into the same district. 

This plan's 2nd District would combine Kanawha as well as Putnam and Marion counties with the Mid-Ohio Valley, including Wood County. The 3rd District would continue to represent Cabell County and the southern coalfields as well as southeastern counties, while gaining nearly all of Randolph County. 

The 2nd District would keep part of Randolph as well as a sliver of Taylor. Those would be the only two counties divided among districts. 

Dubbed the "more perfect plan" because it provides districts nearly equal in population, the proposal's co-sponsors include the Senate's Democratic and Republican leaders as well as major committee chairs. These lawmakers represent both panhandles as well as Kanawha, Monongalia and Marion counties. 

"Our position is, let's get to work. Let's get it done," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley and a leading advocate of separating his Eastern Panhandle region from Charleston. 

Another proposal expected this week sticks more closely to the map targeted by this month's federal ruling. To address the judges' mandate of more equal representation, it would divide Lewis and Braxton counties between two districts. 

Enacted following the 2010 Census population count, the plan struck down Jan. 3 had kept the basic district boundaries in place since 2001 while moving Mason County from the 2nd District to the 3rd. That put the districts within several thousand residents of being equal. The 2-1 ruling cited a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision to conclude that lawmakers had failed to justify why they didn't provide as exactly equal districts as possible. 

"I'm all for the one we passed, but if the court wants one that is a little more equal, this would do it," said Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants and this plan's lead sponsor. 

Boley said she understood why the Eastern Panhandle doesn't want to share a district with Kanawha County. But neither does Wood County, she said. The state's fifth-largest county, Wood is part of Boley's district. 

"This plan affects the least number of people," Boley said of her proposal. "And it doesn't have to be those two counties (Braxton and Lewis), but this just shows how easy it is to get these three districts to become equal." 

While lawmakers introduce alternative maps, the Legislature's top leaders plan to appeal the Jan. 3 ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. These leaders, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Rick Thompson, helped petition the nation's highest court on Friday, seeking a stay of the ruling pending an appeal. 

The U.S. District Court panel, also by 2-1, had refused to stay its ruling last week. It also lifted a Jan. 17 deadline for state officials to submit a new plan, but barred the state from using the plan deemed unconstitutional during this year's elections. 

A stay would allow the state to use the targeted map while the Supreme Court considers the appeal. With all three U.S. House of Representatives seats up for new terms, Friday's petition argues that the panel's rulings have left these races in limbo. 

West Virginia's filing period for all 2012 candidates began Jan. 9 and ends Jan. 28. In the shadow of the federal court case, only Democrat Sue Thorn of Wheeling has filed as a congressional candidate. Several have filed with the Federal Election Commission, including Thorn and the state's three incumbents: Republican Reps. David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito, and Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall. 

The primary is May 8. Friday's petition said options include holding a later primary for the congressional races, or relying on the pre-2010 Census districts. Those districts are even more unequal than what the federal judges struck down, while a special primary would cost several million dollars, the petition noted. 

The state could also adopt a new map, the petition said, but would still face a tight election schedule. To keep a May 8 primary for those races, the state could extend in-person candidate filings to no later than Feb. 3, election officials say. 

"Of course, new legislation would moot the appeal and prevent the State from challenging the Majority Opinion's injunction against legislation adopted with large bipartisan majorities," the petition also said.