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W.Va. redistricting deadline lifted, but election calendar looms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia officials no longer face a Jan. 17 deadline to submit a new congressional redistricting plan, but they also cannot conduct this year's three U.S. House races with the map that was struck down last week as unconstitutional, the federal judges who issued that decision said Tuesday.

The federal panel refused to suspend last week's ruling pending an appeal, and urged the Legislature to draw congressional districts that are nearly equal in population. That's what's called for in last week's U.S. District Court ruling. The panel concluded in a 2-1 vote that the redistricting plan approved in August fell short of the one-person, one-vote principle.

"Reiterating our strong preference that the State act on its own behalf in redistricting, we shall defer any and all action with respect to a remedy until after the Supreme Court has disposed of the Defendants' forthcoming appeal," the order said.

Lawmakers otherwise would have to delay the election calendar for this year's congressional races, the judges wrote. The filing period for all 2012 candidates began Monday, and ends Jan. 28. The primary is May 8.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, as West Virginia's elections chief, must certify the 2012 primary candidates by Feb. 14 under the current calendar. Her office was reviewing Tuesday's order, said spokesman Jake Glance, who declined immediate comment.

"The filing of an appeal by the Defendants likely makes it more difficult [or even impossible] for Secretary Tennant, county officials, and potential candidates for Congress to comply with the current deadlines, but that is a choice reserved for the State," the order said.

Tennant said in a Tuesday statement that she's evaluating the order.

"Even though the panel implied that an election is merely an event which takes place on one day and that the secretary has nearly four months to prepare, many mandated deadlines exist prior to May 8," Tennant said. "Absentee ballots are required by federal law to be mailed to overseas and military voters no later than March 23. Before ballots can be mailed, they must be designed, positions selected by lot, proofed and approved and candidates must have time to file."

But Tuesday's order also expressed hope for a new plan before the primary, citing proposed maps submitted this week by the Jefferson County Commission. The commission filed the pending challenge. With Jefferson part of the 2nd Congressional District, the commission successfully argued that the district wrongly has several thousand more residents than the state's other two, diluting votes there. Stretching across West Virginia from the Ohio River to the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 2nd District also violates the West Virginia Constitution's mandate for compact districts, the challenge alleges.

The Legislature's 60-day regular session begins Wednesday. Several lawmakers expressed interest Tuesday in one of those new proposed plans.

This alternative would move Jefferson County's Eastern Panhandle out of a district shared with Charleston, the state capital and another source of discontentment for the petitioners, and into one with the Northern Panhandle. This district would also contain Morgantown, which along with the Eastern Panhandle saw the most growth in the 2010 census.

The district that includes Charleston, meanwhile, would absorb Wood and others in the Mid-Ohio Valley. The 3rd District would continue to represent the southern coalfields but would also gain nearly all of Randolph County.

Taylor would be the only other county divided between districts. This alternative would keep the U.S. House incumbents -- GOP Reps. David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito, and Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall -- in separate districts. Lawmakers have balked at proposals that would prompt runoffs among these three.

"I like it a lot," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo. "I think it's the best map that I have seen among the proposals that have been floating around since the court decision came out."

A Kanawha County Democrat, Palumbo voted for the plan that was struck down. He also opposed alternatives that sought to move or divide his county. Senate Majority Leader John Unger, meanwhile, opposed the plan that passed and supports the pending challenge. He also oversaw his chamber's preparations for the redistricting process last year.

"There seems to be consensus building around this," Unger, D-Berkeley, said Tuesday. "This seems to be a way forward."

Responding to the 2010 census results, the congressional redistricting plan struck down by the federal panel had merely moved one county, Mason, from the 2nd District to the 3rd District.


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