Legislative Apportionment Board weighs eliminating two member house districts; creating 150 single member districts

by Rob Roper

Vermont

Every ten years we are required to look at our legislative district boundaries and re-jigger them to maintain the principle of one person, one vote in accordance with the latest census data. Based on the 2010 people count, Vermont’s 625,800 citizens would ideally be carved up into 150 house districts of 4172 citizens.

Again, in an ideal world, we would be able to evenly shuffle Vermont’s 237 towns, 9 cities, and 4 gores into house districts that not only held exactly 4172 citizens, but also perfectly incorporated all existing town, geographical, and cultural boundaries.

Some towns, like Stowe (pop. 4314) fit pretty well into this ideal: one town, one district one Rep. In other cases, groups of towns like Danville, Peacham and Grotton (combined population 3950) are helpful as well. We like it when such nice, mathematical groupings of towns aren’t spoiled by things like mountain ranges or a lack of roads that conspire to keep geographic neighbors culturally apart.

Towns like Milton (pop. 10,352) are a royal pain in the rear. You can’t divide them equally – two districts would each be too large, three districts would each be too small. There’s no way around splitting up a town like Milton.

Other towns, like Jericho and Underhill (pops. 5009 and 3016 respectively) combine their populations almost perfectly to make two districts, but it’s impossible to do so without breaking town lines. In cases like this, the solution has been in the past to create a “two member” district in which citizens of the combined towns maintain their exterior boarders, dissolve their interior boarder, and elect two “at large” representatives amongst them.

This raises questions of fairness. Is it fair to the smaller town in such an arrangement as its chances or electing one of its own is diminished. Is it fair that one citizen of a two member district has two representatives to call and pressure if they have a concern, whereas others can only call one?

All this is by way of saying that putting together a legislative district map is one very complicated, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, complete with a set of moral conundrums (and, yes, there will be math on this test). The Legislative Apportionment Board, a group of seven people, two from each major political party (Dems, Progs, and Rs) plus a chair, is charged with putting together the first draft of this puzzle.

This decade’s team is wrestling with the moral and mathematical problems outlined above, and is exploring two alternatives along different lines.

The first proposal is a largely status quo approach to the map. The objective here would be to keep as close to the existing map as mathematically possible, making changes only where absolutely forced to by population shifts. This plan would place a priority on maintaining town lines, even if it means creating or maintaining two member districts to do so. This plan seems to have the support of the two Democrats on the Board as well as the chair.

The second plan calls for wiping the slate clean and putting together a map of 150 single member districts. The overriding principle behind this concept is “One person. One Vote. One Rep.” Although, to achieve this ideal, some towns will have to be un-ideally divided. To take the example Jericho and Underhill from above: Some residents of 5009 member Jericho will have to be split off to vote with the 3016 residents of Underhill to make two roughly 4000 member districts. So far, the Progressives and the Republicans on the board seem most open to this direction.

The final factor is this whole affair is incumbents, and how much weight should be given to protecting the interests existing office holders? Moving to an ideal of 150 single member districts will inevitably put incumbents of both parties into election battles with former two-member district seatmates, or incumbents formerly of a different district entirely. Do we care? Should we care?

In the end, the incumbents will get the final word when the plan moves into the legislature for approval. The foxes are ultimately in charge of the chicken coop.