A key committee signed off Thursday on a map redrawing the legislative districts for the 150 members of the House of Representatives, the latest milestone in the laborious, once-a-decade legislative rebalancing process known as reapportionment.
The House Government Operations Committee unanimously approved new boundaries for 109 legislative districts that will be in place for the upcoming primaries and November general election. The Senate is undergoing a similar process for its 30 members but is lagging behind the House.
Committee chair Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) thanked her colleagues for their patience while sorting through a complex process.
"I never appreciated before how frustrating it is to try to put together a puzzle in which two matching pieces say, 'Don’t put us together,'" she said.
The committee attempted to ensure that the new districts — 68 with one member and 41 with two — represent as close to 4,287 people as possible, a tricky and inherently imperfect mathematical and cartographical exercise.
The committee tried to balance the need for equal-size districts with other considerations, including that districts be reasonably compact and take into account geography and jurisdictional boundaries like school districts and county borders.
The 2020 census figures upon which the new districts were based were delivered six months later than expected, complicating the effort.
"We are doing this redistricting in basically half the amount of time that we originally would have had,” Copeland Hanzas said.
She noted the districts need to be in place by April so candidates can begin preparing for filing deadlines ahead of the August primary election.
The committee rejected a map recommended last year by the seven-member Legislative Apportionment Board that proposed 150 single-member districts.
Many towns told lawmakers they didn’t like the idea of single-member districts, preferring the existing system of one-member and two-member districts, Copeland Hanzas said.
“The decision was made after hearing from many communities as well as many of our colleagues who said, ‘It doesn’t make sense to split us up,’” she said.
Many residents of towns with two members told lawmakers they didn’t want to have half of the town represented by one person and the other half by another.
Residents of Montpelier, for example, are represented by Democrats Mary Hooper and Warren Kitzmiller, and the residents appreciate that they can go to either if they have questions or concerns, Copeland Hanzas said.
Some lawmakers argued against proposed changes to their district — some successfully, most not.
Rep. Larry Labor (R-Morgan) argued against a proposal to redraw his rural Orleans County district to include the eastern edge of neighboring Essex County all the way down to Guildhall, a distance he estimated was an hour drive from his home. It would have been harder for him to effectively represent those faraway residents, he said. The committee redrew the map to keep Labor's district contained to the northeastern corner of the state.
Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) was less successful. She argued against redrawing her district in the southern Green Mountains to shift the towns of Readsboro, Searsburg and Stamford into a new district with Pownal. Sibilia said those towns were geographically and culturally more aligned with the Deerfield Valley towns of Dover, Wilmington and Whitingham, and they shouldn’t be lumped in with Pownal just to make up for population losses along the Route 7 corridor.
Committee members expressed sympathy, but said other solutions would have had an even more significant domino effect on surrounding districts.