Panel goes all in on single-member House districts
By Lola Duffort & Erin Petenko/VTDigger and Polly Mikula
Not for the first time, a special panel advising state lawmakers about how to redraw House and Senate district maps has proposed the wholesale elimination of multimember districts.
But whether the seven-member Legislative Apportionment Board sticks to its guns — or lawmakers pay heed to its recommendations — is another question entirely.
While the number of legislative seats remains constant (150 House and 30 Senate), reapportionment must address changes in population throughout the state.
Every 10 years, armed with new Census information, the General Assembly must redraw its boundaries to ensure compliance with the one person-one vote principle. And in this go-around, the apportionment board is diving headfirst into an old debate: whether to jettison larger, multimember districts for more compact, single-member districts.
On Oct. 15, the board voted 4-3 to approve a draft map for the Vermont House of Representatives with 150 single-member districts. Currently there are 46 two-member districts and 58 single-member districts.
The co-creator of the map, Rob Roper, said adopting single-member districts throughout the state was a matter of “equity” and “common sense.”
“As long as you have a hybrid system where some people have two representatives, and some people have one representative … there’s always going to be questions of what’s fair and what’s better,” he said. “I don’t know if that can ever really be solved, but the fact that there’s a debate at all, I think, is a problem.”
Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a conservative think tank. But single-member districts have some support across the aisle. Former Progressive House candidate Jeremy Hansen collaborated with Roper on the map. And the Vermont Public Research Interest Group, a left-leaning advocacy organization, spoke in support of single-member districts during board testimony.
“If a person can call on eight senators and representatives, they have more people in Montpelier looking after their interests than the people who can only call two people in Montpelier,” Tom Hughes, a senior strategist at VPIRG, told VTDigger earlier in October.
The plan also has its detractors. Board member Jeanne Albert voted against the plan and produced her own with 62 single-member districts and 44 multimember districts.
She expressed concern about how, in her view, the single-member map deviates from the board’s legal and constitutional mandate: To create districts of roughly equal population that conform to town lines as much as possible.
Vermont statute requires the board to create a map where districts are within 10% of the “ideal population,” which is about 4,300 people per representative.
In Albert’s report on her draft map, she provides her own calculations on how the two maps compare on those standards. According to her data, districts in the single-member map vary from 9.8% too small to 8.8% too large, while her map varies only from 7.8% to 7.5%. Her plan also has fewer districts that are over 7% too large or small.
The single-member plan would also split up 30 cities or towns for the first time, while hers newly divides only 17 communities. Roper and Hansen’s plan, for example, splits Montpelier, a longtime two-member House district, into two separate districts.
Albert’s plan maintains Middlebury as a two-member district that follows the town’s borders. The single-member plan, on the other hand, would break Middlebury into three separate districts, combining the easternmost third of the town together with Bristol to its north.
Dave Silberman, a justice of the peace in Middlebury, called the single-member Addison County-area redistricting proposals “absurd.” Justices of the peace sit on the local boards of civil authority that give the apportionment board local feedback after the panel puts out its draft maps. Middlebury and Bristol aren’t even in the same school district together, Silberman noted. And such boundaries matter, he argues, because people who send their children to the same schools form a natural political constituency — even if they don’t live in the same town — having voted and debated on school budgets for years. Another proposed Addison County district, he said, would span two mountain passes and take about an hour and half to drive through.
“There’s zero political cohesion there, right? These are not people who talk to each other,” said Silberman, who added that he was not speaking on behalf of the full Middlebury Board of Civil Authority.
Many local districts affected
Rep. Jim Harrison, Rutland-Windsor-1 currently representing Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon, said that while his district is already a single member district, in the draft proposal it also gets cut into two new districts. This is a result of Killington posting a 73% increase in population over the 2010 census causing the four towns to now total about 4,700 residents.
In the proposed plan, Chittenden, most of Mendon and over half of Rutland Town would be together in one single member district and Killington, part of Mendon, Bridgewater, Pittsfield and Stockbridge would comprise another.
“As the incumbent representative, my first reaction would be to keep the district four towns alone. After all, all four communities have supported my candidacy in the past,” Harrison wrote in his column in the Mountain Times last week. But added ” A 4-3 tripartisan majority of the LAB felt single member districts were more fair. I’m inclined to agree.”
Rutland City currently has four house districts and Rutland Town has one. But in the 2020 Census Rutland City lost 688 people (the most of any jurisdiction in the state) and Rutland Town lost 130 and, therefore, losing correlating representation was expected. But the proposal reduces the city to just two districts with the other two districts joining a portion of the town’s district, while another portion of the town is split off to merge with what used to be part of Rutland-Windsor 1 (with Chittenden and most of Mendon).
Mayor David Allaire has said he is “totally opposed” to the proposed changes and all the aldermen that have spoken about the proposal, thus far, agree. Allaire said he hopes to present a united front against the proposal.
Will this go anywhere?
The latest plan echoes the apportionment debate of 10 years ago. Tom Little, head of the reapportionment board then and now, said an all-single-member-district plan passed the board 4-3 in 2011, but its final proposal to lawmakers backed off from that after getting feedback from the towns.
“There’s some towns that have been in the same, essentially the same, two-member district for decades. And they’ve become accustomed to it and they like that model,” he said.
Little himself was in the minority this year. “You can make a case that single-member districts are, in some sense, a better unit of representative democracy,” he said, but he thinks it’s better to make the statutory requirements a higher priority.
Local boards of civil authority will now meet and provide their own comments about the apportionment board’s draft. The board must then review that feedback before passing its final recommendations on to the Legislature. And whether or not the board keeps its current proposal as-is when it is forwarded to lawmakers, the General Assembly is likely to make significant adjustments.
Shap Smith, who was speaker of the House during the last redistricting process, recalled how Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, then-chair of the House Government Operations Committee — which takes a first pass at the redistricting map — listened politely when board members presented their ideas.
“And then she said, ‘OK, well, they presented their map, let’s go to work on whatever we’re going to do,’” he said. “I don’t feel like it gets a ton of deference.”
Roper said “there’s a lot of pressure from elected officials” to keep their own districts the same because they don’t want to lose the people who elected them. But he hopes that feedback from local communities will propel the plan forward.
“It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid,” he said. “It’ll only happen once and then this will be the norm and everybody will be fine with it.”
Since such a radical reimagining of the map could threaten the seats of many incumbents, the cynical view is that lawmakers will ultimately protect their own. But Smith argues lawmakers — and their constituents — just generally favor the status quo.
“I think one of the things that wins the day is as little disruption as possible,” he said. “And there’s something to be said for people getting used to the districts that they’re in.”