Redistricting Battle Kicks Off With House Spat Over Single Districts | Off Message

Redistricting Battle Kicks Off With House Spat Over Single Districts


A map of single-member House districts recommended by the Legislative Apportionment Board. - VERMONT SECRETARY OF STATE
  • Vermont Secretary of State
  • A map of single-member House districts recommended by the Legislative Apportionment Board.
The Vermont House of Representatives on Friday advanced a map that would redraw the boundaries of their legislative districts in a way more likely to keep existing members in power than one widely viewed as more disruptive to the status quo.

Lawmakers insisted the vote was merely the start of a larger conversation about how to best divvy up General Assembly districts in light of population shifts in the last decade, not a preference for one plan over another.

“This initial redistricting plan is the beginning of the process,” said Rep. John Gannon (D-Wilmington) “We are far from the end of the process.”

But the decision to kick off the effort using a map other than the one approved by the panel tasked with redrawing those lines smacked some as proof of legislative self-interest at work.

Republicans pounced on the move as proof Democrats, who hold solid majorities in both the House and Senate chambers, want to cling to power instead of embracing new districts that might upset the political applecart.

“I believe strongly this map put forward by the committee puts incumbency at the forefront rather than equality of representation,” Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) said in prepared remarks read by a colleague.

As it stands now, the 150 House representatives are elected in two types of districts. There are 58 districts represented by a single member and 46 districts represented by two members.

Scheuermann noted she is the sole voice in the House for members of her district, while residents just over the line in Waterbury have two representatives, who are Democrats.
Population changes in Vermont - VERMONT SECRETARY OF STATE
  • Vermont Secretary of State
  • Population changes in Vermont
That’s because there are twice as many residents in the Waterbury district, which also includes Bolton, Huntington and tiny Buels Gore. But Scheuermann and others nevertheless argue that having the two types of districts amounts to “unequal representation.”

Residents of two-member districts “have two voices in the House. I have one for my constituents,” Minority Leader Pattie McCoy (R-Poultney) said.

After nearly a year of work, the Legislative Apportionment Board in November approved a map that proposed eliminating two-member House districts entirely. It also approved a Senate map with 30 single-senator districts, eliminating the multimember districts that includes Chittenden County six-member district.

Based on the 2020 U.S. Census of 643,077 residents in the state, the goal is to get each single member-district as close to 4,287 residents as possible, and each two-member district close to double that, or 8,574 residents. The goal of single-member Senate districts is to get them as close as possible to 21,435 residents each.

The new House map proposed 150 single-member districts, often by dividing the two-member districts in half and rejiggering the lines to make the resulting districts as balanced as possible.

Alburgh residents are currently represented by two House members, Republicans Leland Morgan and Michael Morgan, both of whom live in Milton, 35 miles south.

The proposed switch to single-member districts would chop the district in half, creating a northern district for Alburgh, Isle La Motte and Grand Isle, and a southern district for South Hero and Milton.

Similarly, residents of Huntington are currently represented by two Democrats, Theresa Wood and Tom Stevens, both of whom live in Waterbury, 15 miles to the east and in a different county.

Under the single-representative plan, the district would be split largely along Route 100, with Buels Gore, Huntington, Bolton and western Waterbury in one district, and eastern Waterbury, including downtown, in the second.

The new map could force incumbent representatives from the same party to run against each other to retain their seats, while opening up opportunities for new representatives from new districts.

Some existing districts have gotten significantly imbalanced over the last decade as some have gained residents while others have lost them.
Population changes in Vermont by county - VERMONT SECRETARY OF STATE
  • Vermont Secretary of State
  • Population changes in Vermont by county
The changes mean that there are now 19 House districts either at least 10 percent above or below the ideal number; six of those are more than 20 percent out of whack.

For example, Rep. John Killacky’s (D-South Burlington) district has grown by 30 percent in the last decade, while the population in McCoy’s district fell by 21 percent. These shifts within existing districts create the need for boundaries to be adjusted every 10 years.

It’s tedious work, Tom Little, chair of the apportionment board, told lawmakers earlier this week.

“Every time you adjust a district line, you adjust a district line for two districts — the one you’re looking at and the one next door,” Little said.

This can have a “potential ripple or domino effect” on surrounding districts that invariably “are not going to make everyone happy.”

The apportionment board met 30 times in 2021 before delivering its final report to the legislature after a 4-3 vote.

Some fault the board’s partisan structure for its inability to reach consensus.  The seven-member body is composed of a chair, Little, appointed by the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court; three citizens appointed by the Democratic, Republican and Progressive parties; and three citizens appointed from each of those parties by Gov. Phil Scott.

Rep. Katherine Sims (D-Craftsbury) thinks the process is flawed for two reasons. The first is that the apportionment board puts a huge amount of work into making a recommendation, and then that recommendation has historically never been adopted by the General Assembly.

“At the very least, it’s a waste of the BLA’s time and energy,” Sims said.

The bigger problem, Sims said, is that “the incumbents have the last say in the process.”

She’s introduced a bill that would require the apportionment board to explore other models and issue a report to the legislature about how the 2022 process could be improved. Some states have redistricting commissions that take the work out of the hands of lawmakers.

In response to criticism from colleagues, Gannon stressed that a shortened timeline had forced a change in procedure. The 2020 Census figures came in five months late, preventing the apportionment board from finishing its work in August, which would have given lawmakers time to hold public hearings in the fall.

Those House hearings, as well as feedback from local boards on both plans, will still take place in coming weeks — virtually, most likely, due to the pandemic, he said.

The districts need to be set by April 1 so candidates know what seats they can run for in time for the August primaries and the November general election, Chris Winters, deputy secretary of state, told lawmakers.

Gannon said the only goal of floating the alternative plan is to ensure cities and towns have time to weigh in on both plans in time.

"All we’re trying to do in this process is ensure we have the maximum amount of information so we can make the best, appropriate decision,” Gannon said.

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