Vermont panel endorses one-member districts for house and senate

Published: 12/6/2021 9:37:24 PM
Modified: 12/6/2021 9:36:56 PM

An advisory panel tasked with counseling lawmakers about how to redraw House and Senate maps has recommended — by two narrow 4-3 votes — to go all-in on single-member districts.

The General Assembly must redraw its boundaries every 10 years, after the new U.S. census is published, to ensure compliance with the one-person, one-vote principle. The seven-member Legislative Apportionment Board is charged with taking a first crack at how those new maps should look.

Currently, the Vermont House’s 150 members are elected from 104 districts, which either have one or two representatives apiece. In the upper chamber, 30 senators are elected from 13 districts, which either have one, two, three or — in the case of the Chittenden County district — six senators each. Maps now forwarded to lawmakers for their consideration propose 150 single-member districts on the House side and 30 single-member districts on the Senate side.

Rob Roper, the co-creator of the House and Senate maps the board has now endorsed, argues that multimember districts certainly have their upsides. In feedback to the board, many local officials said their residents liked having several representatives that they could call upon.

But Roper argues having a hybrid system is what’s inherently unequal. A single voter in Chittenden County, for example, might have two House representatives and up to six senators they might reach with a problem.

“That’s just not fair,” he said, to a voter in a smaller district, who may have just one House representative and one senator they can call.

The board did make adjustments to its original draft proposals based on feedback from towns. A joint South Burlington and Williston district in the House map, for example, was jettisoned in favor of a new Williston and Essex district. Wherever possible, Roper said, the board’s final recommendations tried to be responsive to local concerns about districts reflecting cohesive communities.

But wherever the single-member district framework could not be reconciled with what towns asked for, eliminating multimember units still prevailed. For Jeanne Albert, another member of the board that pitched competing maps, that’s not good enough.

Single-member districts are far less likely to align with existing town borders, and many local officials have complained that splitting their municipality up into multiple, smaller, single-member districts would be disruptive.

All of Winooski, for example, is currently contained within one two-member House district. The board’s proposal would split it into two single-member districts. The city’s board of civil authority wrote to the Legislative Apportionment Board that it would be administratively burdensome to maintain two separate polling places and that they had equity concerns about splitting off a part of the city with growing levels of poverty from the other.

“I asked Rob Roper: ‘So Winooski’s concerns don’t matter?’ and his reply was, ‘Not in this framework’ — namely, their all-single-member scheme,” Albert said. “Needless to say, I completely disagree.”

The reapportionment board’s proposals have not received much deference from lawmakers in the recent past. And such a dramatic redrawing of the maps would be problematic for many incumbent lawmakers. But Roper said he’s trying to be optimistic.

“Being on this board is not a way to make friends or keep the ones you have. But I hope that they’ll see that it’s an opportunity to move forward. Multimember districts are really an anachronism. Almost all the other states have gotten rid of them,” he said.

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