WVa leads nation in population drop as redistricting looms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s population declined 3.2% over the past decade, the most of any state, according to U.S. Census figures released Thursday, as lawmakers grapple with reshaping the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

The numbers show that West Virginia lost a higher percentage of its residents than any other U.S. state and was one of seven states to lose a congressional seat after the 2020 census. The population fell by 59,278 from 2010 to 2020, to 1.8 million.

The figures show 47 of the state’s 55 counties lost population. Exceptions were in the Eastern Panhandle and two northern counties associated with West Virginia University.

According to the latest data, the biggest jump in population occurred in Berkeley County, which gained 17,907 residents — a 17.2% increase. It is now the state’s second-largest county, with 122,706 people. Nearby Jefferson County’s population jumped 7.9%. The Eastern Panhandle has seen steady population growth this century due to an influx of commuters to Washington, D.C.

The state’s largest county, Kanawha, which includes the capital of Charleston, remains the most populous, despite a 6.4% drop to 180,745 residents.

Monongalia County, which includes WVU’s Morgantown campus, saw a 10% increase and overtook Cabell as the state’s third-most populous county, with 105,822 residents. Preston County, east of Monongalia, saw a 2.1% increase, to 34,216 residents.

Putnam County, between Huntington and Charleston, saw the only other significant increase of 3.5%. The county now has 57,440 residents.

Besides people leaving the state, West Virginia’s population has seen changing demographics, with deaths outpacing births for the past two decades, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Population losses were especially hard in counties where coal mines closed, including in the southern coalfields. McDowell County lost 13.6% of its residents in the past decade, dropping to a population of below 20,000 for the first time since 1900. After U.S. Steel sold the last of its mining operations in McDowell County in 2003, 23% of the population left because there was no other industry to rely on for jobs.

Pendleton County lost the highest percentage of its residents, 20.2%, followed by Ritchie County at 19.2% and Calhoun County at 18.3%. They now have populations of 6,143, 8,444 and 6,229, respectively.

Lawmakers must pare three U.S. House districts down to two — all three have sitting Republicans — as well as map out districts for 34 state Senate and 100 House of Delegates seats. Next year, the entire House will be elected from single-member districts for the first time under a law passed in 2018. Currently, more than half of the House is elected from multiple-member districts.

Public hearings are being held around the state through mid-September, including one in Morgantown on Thursday. A special session is expected to convene later in the year.

Morgan County Republican Charles Trump is leading the Senate committee and Mineral County Republican Gary Howell chairs the House committee. The GOP holds a supermajority in both chambers. Republicans have a wide advantage in both committees.