Commentary, Opinion, State News

Multimember House districts dilute minority votes

By Shane Spence

Editor’s note: Shayne Spence was a candidate for the Vermont House in 2020, and is a justice of the peace in Johnson.

The tripartisan legislative apportionment board voted this month to recommend a new map for legislative seats, which is required every 10 years following the census. Its new map would eliminate the use of multimember House districts.

The new map, should it be adopted, consists of 150 single-seat districts, so every Vermonter will be represented by one and only one House member.

This is a terrific step for a number of reasons, such as better accountability to voters, less expensive political campaigns, and greater overall equity, but a big one is this is a step toward erasing elements of historic, systemic racism in our election systems.

At the May 2021 meeting of the legislative apportionment board, Vermont’s racial equity director, Xusana Davis, and a member of the Racial Equity Task Force, Brittney Larrabee, testified about the unfortunate racial history behind multimember districts and advocated for an all-single-member map.

Davis and Larrabee recommended that Vermont “modernize the criteria of the reapportionment commission to include racial and social equity as explicit considerations,” and supported their position with a link to a Michigan Law Review article from 1978, discussing how one method used in the past to dilute the votes of BIPOC and other minority populations was the creation of multimember districts.

One striking line from this article; “Multimember districts not only increase the difficulty of electing minority candidates, they also decrease the likelihood that the minority will be adequately represented by the successful white candidates.”

Multimember legislative districts are a gerrymandering tool, plain and simple. In the era of Jim Crow, they were used to join a majority Black district with a larger-majority white district to create one two-member majority-white district in which the white “majority” could elect both representatives.

This trick can, of course, be used to disenfranchise any kind of minority population, such as rural interests vs. urban, or partisan affiliation, etc. This is why almost every other state in the union has eliminated multimember districts. Let us not be the last place left with this reminder of our racist past still on the books.

Vermonters in general seem to get the benefits of all-single-member districts too. The reapportionment board put out a public survey that got 634 responses, with 75% saying they wanted all-single-member districts. The board listened and, on a tripartisan vote, did the right thing.

Unfortunately, the Legislature itself will have the final say and rumors are already bubbling up that the majority party in Montpelier will not support the evolution to all-single-member districts. Why not? Eighty-eight out of 150 incumbent representatives and 27 out of 30 incumbent senators were elected in multimember districts.

Incumbent politicians love to preach “change” and sacrifice for the greater good, until it puts their reelection at risk. They are hoping this issue stays below most Vermonters’ radars. Let’s make sure it doesn’t.

It’s all well and good for Vermont politicians to throw stones at legislators in other states for protecting antiquated election laws and traditions in places like Georgia and Texas, but how about we clean up our own glass house first?

One way for ordinary citizens to amplify the message of Xusana Davis and the racial equity task force is to get involved with upcoming board of civil authority meetings. Every Vermont town and city has a Board of Civil Authority, made up of their elected justices of the peace, and those boards are asked to give input on the proposed recommendations.

Speaking to your local justices of the peace, and relaying the message from Davis and the legislative apportionment board in support of single-member districts, will go a long way toward convincing them of the importance of upholding these recommendations.

In those conversations, remind them that when the legislative apportionment board did a survey of Vermonters, over 75% of them said they preferred that all House districts be single-member districts. You don’t see that type of overwhelming support of very many things in government. Let’s capitalize on it and ensure that, when the Legislature approves a district map next spring, it is a map that reflects the wishes of the people of Vermont.

It just so happens that doing so will remove one remaining vestige of systemic racism from our electoral system as well. In the wake of nationwide calls for change in the way we handle racial discussions as a country, it seems step one is ensuring everyone can equitably access a seat at the table.

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