By CHARLES MINIMAH
CHARLESTON -- The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing -- one person, one vote.
The United State Supreme Court's fundamental "one person, one vote" standard for legislative districting couldn't be clearer. As we begin the process of redrawing state legislative districts, our lawmakers must keep in mind this fundamental principle, and how the federal courts will apply it.
Otherwise, the West Virginia Legislature could commit a blatant violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause by effectively diluting the voting power of thousands of minority voters.
Legislative redistricting has been a significant topic for several months now. Notable politicians, like Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, and media outlets have voiced support for the adoption of single-member delegate districts statewide. And while there are many valid arguments in support of single-member districts, most state lawmakers seem resistant to change.
Nowhere is that more true than in Kanawha County, which is home to one of the largest multi-member districts in the nation. The seven members of the 30th delegate district have argued in favor of keeping the status quo, citing the extensive influence they provide for their constituents. However, it is this influence that likely violates our United States Constitution.
While political gerrymandering is generally allowed in the redistricting process, federal courts are extremely sensitive to redistricting plans that effectively discriminate against racial minorities.
Establishment of the "minority influence" 31st district in Kanawha County is generally assumed a good thing, and it is. With almost a third of the district's population comprised of minorities, its delegate is more keenly aware of the needs of the community on issues such as racial profiling. But the creation of the 7-member 30th, and even the 3-member 32nd district, adjacent to the single-member "minority influence" district overshadows the benefits to voters in the 31st, and actually discriminates against those of us who reside within the minority-influenced district.
The use of multi-member delegate districts is specifically disfavored under enforcement of the Voting Rights Act because of the negative impact that multi-member districts have on minority voters. Analysis published in the Yale Law Journal shows that constituents of a seven-member district, like the 30th, would have 2.64 times more effective representation than those living in a single-member district, such as the 31st.
By removing a substantial portion of West Virginia's minority voting population from the most powerful delegate district in the state, and relegating those residents to a single-member district, state lawmakers have effectively marginalized the voting power of those of us residing in the 31st delegate district.
Instead of belonging to a legislative district with seven representatives, we have only one. As a result, residents of the 31st district have a lesser chance for representation on influential committees or leadership positions.
For example, if the Legislature is asked to fund a project to be located in Kanawha County, there are seven times as many delegates whose interest is to have it placed in the 30th, compared to the single delegate whose interest is placement in the "minority influence" district.
Similarly, members of the 30th district currently have representation on fourteen committees in the House of Delegates, while we have representation on only four. As a result, residents of the 30th district are almost guaranteed to have representation on the most powerful committees that deal with the most important issues facing our state.
For example, unlike voters in the wealthier and more powerful 30th district, residents in our district currently have no representation on the House Finance Committee, which is considering a reduction in the food tax which would greatly help our district residents. And, perhaps as the ultimate insult, we have had no delegate on the powerful House redistricting committee while residents of the 30th have two. We have actually been directed to raise our concerns with delegates who represent voters of other districts.
All of these are reason enough for state lawmakers to break up the seven-member 30th district. As Phil Kabler recently wrote, "the reality is, anything short of breaking the 30th up into ... smaller delegate districts will almost certainly land the Legislature in federal court for potential violation of the Voting Rights Act. Maintaining a "one man-seven votes" 30th District adjacent to the "one man-one vote" 31st minority influence district [won't] cut it, civil rights-wise."
The United States Supreme Court has held that a citizen's fundamental right to vote "can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen's vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise."
As the special session on redistricting begins, I encourage all voters in the 31st district — including Delegate Meshea Poore — to stand up against any plan which discriminates, either directly or indirectly, on the basis of race.
If single-member representation is good enough for the "minority influence" district, it ought to be good enough for the rest of the Kanawha Valley. Anything else would be unfair, and likely unconstitutional.
Editor's Note: Minimah is a local business owner and a resident of the "minority influence" 31st Delegate District.