Political ‘Infrastructure’ and the future of West Virginia Politics

With all the discussion of physical infrastructure in the last six months, the possibility exist that we have forgotten about a more important type of infrastructure in society.  The political institutions which comprise key aspects of a democracy arguably constitute a more important ‘political’ infrastructure in our society.  In the last decade, the West Virginia Republican Party has significantly altered these institutions, which tilt elections in their favor for the immediate future.

Democrats once held great sway in West Virginia, but since 2000, the state dramatically turned red.  Some of the reasons relate to the focus on political issues.  The Bush administration started a trend of focusing on political issues leaning more towards the social policies rather than economic policies.  Most residents in West Virginia hold anti-abortion views and the GOP capitalizes on this in every single election.  And that’s part of the game, so to speak.  Candidates and their parties have the responsibility of framing the issues in a way which appeals to voters and then help turn out those voters.  However, the systems and means by which we elect our representatives are changing in ways which unfairly help Republicans.

So what are examples of these changes in political infrastructure?

1. Most people overlook the elected position in West Virginia of Secretary of State.  This individual bears the primary responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections for the entire state.  The Secretary of State possesses wide latitude in determining how counties conduct elections and tabulate votes.

While we often overlook the this position, the entire nation should understand the importance of the position after the mess with Georgia’s Secretary of State in the 2020 Election, where he refused to overturn the results of the state’s presidential returns.  In West Virginia, current Secretary of State Mac Warner raised eyebrows after his election in 2016 by firing 16 employees in the Office of Secretary of State almost immediately.  As it happened, most of the 16 employees were Democrats.  Warner hired 23 individuals, and almost all were Republicans.  Regardless of the level of employees’ competency, the optics were bad.  

Firing a group of people and then replacing them with members of one political party provides the Republican Party with their people on the inside of key government positions on how to handle election policy.  Moreover, those 16 people who lost their jobs?  They filed lawsuits for wrongful termination and settled with the state.  The payouts totaled over $3.2 million of your tax dollars.  Small price to pay for controlling the gears of elections.

2. The state legislature also contributes to the development of Republican political infrastructure.  One of their more recent changes involves the creation of an intermediate court system.  Prior to this change, any civil or criminal complaint would originate in the appropriate circuit court and any potential appeal moved directly to the West Virginia State Supreme Court.  The intermediate court of three judges adds another layer to the legal system, which benefits those who fall into the Republican camp.  Adding another court to West Virginia makes it more difficult for individuals with less financial resources to pursue a claim or an appeal in courts.  This, in sheer percentages, would likely benefit Republicans more than Democrats.  The new law, which maintains that these judges on the court will be elected in the future, allows for the governor to appoint the first round of judges on staggered terms.  Governor Jim Justice, of course, is a Republican.  

3. Last year, the State Senate passed SB 565, which would have altered elections in some concerning ways.  Current election law in West Virginia allows for early voting in person to occur from the 13th day prior to the election to the 3rd day prior to the election.  This law would have changed that early voting period to the 17th day prior to the election to the 7th.  What’s the rationale for this type of change? 

More concerning about SB 565 was the provision which would have allowed for purging voter registration rolls if a voter did not vote in the previous election.  This would allow the Secretary of State more control over elections and the right to vote.  If a voter sat out a single election, the Secretary of State could remove their name from the voting pool.  The Republican Party would control a significant piece of the infrastructure in elections.  

Ultimately, SB 565 did not pass through the House of Delegates before the 2021 session ended.  Yet, as with most legislation, it stands to reason that the bill’s sponsors will pick this up again in the 2022 session.  

4. Republicans currently hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature, and this means they can pass virtually any piece of legislation they deem necessary.  Democrats can do little to push back.  One of the perks of having a majority at this particular moment is that the GOP controlled the redistricting process for the senate and the House of Delegates.  Republicans instituted some rather significant changes in this area which create more favorable circumstances for their candidates.

The most noteworthy change to the system stemmed from the decision to move from multi-member districts to single member districts in the House of Delegates.  Previously, the multi-member districts played an important role in helping to maintain representation of an area proportional to the community at large.  For instance, in the old system, I lived in House District 16, which had three seats.  A voter could choose up to three people to represent the district, allowing for a range of representation.  In the Election of 2020, House 16 had two Republicans and one Democrat.  Two of the three are white and the third is black.   

Multi-member districts also have a natural immunity to gerrymandering (redrawing district lines to help or hurt a candidate or group).  It becomes more difficult to fudge with the districts if less of them exist.  The old system had 67 districts, and the new one will have 100.  That’s 50% more districts to draw in a way that would benefit particular people, groups, or parties.

Questions quickly popped up over a change to a district affecting incumbent Caleb Hanna (R-44), whose new district would have included part of Pocahontas County.  Delegates requested the change because of a white supremacist group which lives isolated in Pocahontas County (Delegate Hanna is African-American).  The white supremacist group in said county is largely defunct and would likely have no impact on any election.  Critics also pointed out that the Republicans only wished to protect racial minorities if they were of the same party.

Republicans also redrew the districts into a fashion whereby many Democratic incumbents would face one another in an election, whereas few Republicans would face such primary contests.  

If you look at the new districts, some of the shapes appear bizarre enough to suggest gerrymandering.  The accompanying demographic data also presents some curious numbers on race.  Not one of the 100 districts contains less than a 74% white grouping.  Ironically, one of the districts which has the largest non-white percentage is home to Delegate Sean Hornbuckle (D-16), a candidate so widely popular in the Huntington area, he would probably win regardless of the racial makeup. 

There are only a few of the major areas in the state where I have a deep level of familiarity, and two of those are Huntington and Charleston.  If Republicans had a commitment to protecting racial minorities, I can assure you that the committee on redistricting could have drawn a better map for the Huntington and Charleston areas.

Why does this stuff matter?  

The most significant right any citizen has in a democracy is the right to vote.  Without that unobstructed right, the people are at the mercy of those in power.  The political infrastructure which is being altered in West Virginia is worth examining:

  • The Secretary of State’s mismanagement of a system which includes his stacking his office with political allies.
  • Creating an additional layer of courts which can only benefit those with financial resources, imbued with Republican appointed judges for the foreseeable future 
  • Attempting to alter voting rights legislation 
  • Abandoning multi-member districts 
  • Gerrymandering districts to benefit one party and certain people 

This leads to a state dominated by a single party and no true representation of the people.  The move from blue to red in the last two decades finally saw Republicans surpass Democrats in number of registered voters, with 36.8% and 36.5% respectively.  Surprisingly, 22.6% of voters in West Virginia hold no party affiliation.  These percentages definitely aren’t indicative of the government the state has.

The state has also witnessed a few politicians make a flip in party affiliation.  We are all aware of Jim Justice’s transition from Democrat to Republican, but others have seen the light, as it were.  

In 2014, Daniel Hall flipped to the Republican Party when the State Senate held a 17-17 balance, giving the GOP a majority.  At the time, he noted, “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming and Mcdowell [sic] counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate. I have always picked our people over party…and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”  

This past summer, Delegate Mick Bates switched to the majority party, giving the Republicans a 78-22 advantage in the House.  Bates wrote in a statement explaining his move, “At a national level, the controlling interests and leadership of the Democratic party continue to pursue positions that alienate and anger voters in rural parts of the country and don’t reflect the priorities, values or beliefs of the people in West Virginia.”  That’s a coded message explaining that his district voted heavily for Donald Trump, and he sees the proverbial writing on the wall. 

Last week, another relevant switch occurred when former Delegate Doug Reynolds announced he was leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP.  The news seems relevant because it has to precede some type of announcement for another run at office.  Reynolds is not at all someone who could be described as conservative, but after losing the 2016 Election for Attorney General to Patrick Morrissey, he, too, must have seen which way the winds are blowing.

Reynolds’ party switch is more concerning than others because he founded and runs HD Media, which owns a number of newspapers in Southern West Virginia, including the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, and the state’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.  These important institutional mechanisms for conveying key information, endorsements, and other political news have largely been fairly liberal in the past.  Does that change in the future?

One thing is for certain.  The Republican Party has effectively laid the groundwork for political domination of state politics for some time to come.  A one-party state benefits no one.

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