By Ben Williams
Multimember districts. Decades ago, they were a fixture for American legislatures, yet many states moved away from them following voting rights lawsuits in the 1960s and 1970s.
Congress requires its representatives to be elected from single-member districts. The legal legacy of the civil rights movement has favored single-member districts over multimember districts, as the latter are considered more conducive to the creation of majority-minority districts under the Voting Rights Act.
Correspondingly, courts and legislatures have largely transitioned to a position strongly in favor of single-member districts. Only a handful of states still elect multiple representatives from fewer, larger districts.
The 2018 legislative session saw another state abandon multimember districts in favor of single-member districts.
In prior reapportionments, West Virginia’s House of Representatives utilized a combination of single-member and multimember districts of varying numbers. Counties with larger populations were typically kept intact, electing multiple at-large members. Rural counties with smaller populations would often be combined with other rural counties to form geographically large single-member districts.
To achieve this unity, the state’s 100 House delegates were elected from 67 districts. Eleven of those districts elect two members, two districts have four members, and one district has five members. But with the passage of House Bill 4002, the state will break up its multimember districts into multiple single-member districts following the 2020 Census.
In a nod to the power of a national trend, the bill notes that West Virginia is currently one of only 10 states that utilize multimember districts in its state legislature, and one of only two, along with New Hampshire, that has multimember districts which elect three or more members.
The bill was signed by Governor Jim Justice (R) on March 21. Because it is a statute, it could be amended or repealed before it first goes into effect in 2021.
Ben Williams is a former summer clerk who does contract work for NCSL.