Journalists’ debriefing: the distribution committee proposes to upset the legislative constituencies
Every 10 years, Vermont redraws the boundaries of its legislative constituencies in the House and Senate to reflect population changes based on the recent census.
This year, the Vermont Legislative Distribution Council is proposing single-member districts for all seats in the House and Senate. This change could lead to big changes in the makeup of the Vermont legislature.
Liam Elder-Connors of VPR spoke with senior political reporter Bob Kinzel to discuss these changes and the impact they could have. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liam Elder-Connors: So the allocation board has the responsibility of redrawing the actual geographic boundaries of the 150 members of the House and the 30 senators. This year, they are making unusual and controversial recommendations, especially in the Senate. Tell us about what they offer there.
Liam, the board recommends that all Senate ridings be single-member ridings. And they did it on 4-3, so it was pretty controversial. Now, to give you an idea of what a major change is, let’s look at the current Senate map.
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There is a six member district; it’s in Chittenden County. It is the largest senatorial constituency in the whole country. There are three constituencies of three members. There are six two-member districts. And there are only three single-member ridings right now. So the board is saying, “Let’s all make these single-member ridings.” So that would create 30 separate senatorial ridings in Vermont, and that would be a huge, huge change.
Well, what about the House? They are also considering single-member districts. Can you tell us a bit about this proposal?
Yes. And it was also a 4-3 vote on the allocation table. So that shows that there has been a lot of discussion and debate on this issue in the House. While the impact is important, it is not as important as we just said in the Senate. And here’s why.
“I think everyone on the dispatch board feels that there is real value for small districts. At least in principle, where you can do it.”
– Tom Small
Currently, Vermont House has 44 two-member districts. It also has 62 single-member constituencies. For example, around 40% of the House is currently elected in single-member constituencies. Allocation board chairman Tom Little said there was certainly an argument in favor of single-member districts, as they reduce the number of voters represented by a member.
“I think everyone on the dispatch board feels that there is real value for small districts. At least in principle, where you can do them,” Little said.
Now, Liam, the council has heard from a number of towns that have two-member districts. And for the most part, they want to keep them. And they are very attached to this issue. It is therefore far from being settled.
Bob, the new legislative district maps are supposed to reflect the changing population of Vermont over the past decade. What can you tell us about how the population has changed and why this is important?
Well, Liam, this is really the most important part of the breakdown and the new census. And what we’ve seen in Vermont, really over the last 25 years, is a shift in population from the Northeast Kingdom and the southern part of the state to the Northwestern region of Vermont – particularly in the counties of Chittenden and Franklin.
And one of the tasks of the distribution board is to make sure that Senate districts and House districts contain roughly the same number of people. And then the council has to adjust the geographic boundaries of those districts when there is a population change. Chairman of the Board, Tom Little, told me that demographic shifts this year are going to require key changes in both the House and the Senate.
“I think what we saw this time around was something at least close to a tipping point where very gradual changes might not always work.”
– Tom Small
“I think what we saw this time around was at least close to a tipping point where very gradual changes might not always work,” Little said.
So, Liam, it’s important to stress that there is no doubt that this population change will reduce the political clout of more rural areas of Vermont. And that will increase the influence of suburban areas of Vermont.
The allocation council recommended having single-member constituencies for all seats in the House and Senate. What’s the next step in this process?
Liam, that’s when things get political and get really interesting. These recommendations of the council have been filed with the House and the Senate, and the legislature will make the final decision.
Today, in the past, the Senate has generally appointed a special bipartisan allocation committee to gather evidence and draw the final map of the Senate. In the House, this work is usually done by the House Government Operations Committee. Now, by tradition, the Senate does not interfere with the House card and the House does not interfere with the Senate card. Because if they do, it triggers a huge power struggle between the two chambers. I think the big decision these House and Senate committees face is whether or not they want to accept the single-member constituency approach. This decision will guide all their other work.
Well, Bob, are lawmakers bound to accept the recommendations of the allocation board? Or can they just create their own map?
They can do whatever they want, Liam. Now, if a city has a strong feeling that a terrible decision has been made in the delimitation of its new district boundaries by the dispatch council, it can lobby the legislature directly to make these changes. And if that doesn’t work, they can appeal the legislative decision to the Vermont Supreme Court.
But in the past, the court has been very reluctant to interfere in this legislative process unless there are population issues involved. For example, maybe a neighborhood has too few people or too many. So if a city says “Hey, we don’t like this map because our city has nothing in common with this other city in our new neighborhood, so we don’t want to merge with them,” that’s not going to be. a convincing argument. And the court is unlikely to step in and order a change.
Well, there’s an election coming up in November 2022. And it looks like this new card is obviously going to be big enough for that. So what is the time frame during which lawmakers actually have to vote on the creation of the new district maps?
Liam, you are right, it is absolutely essential for the elections of 2022. Because candidates cannot file their electoral papers until they know in which constituency they are running. Now applicants can start filing at the end of April, and the actual filing deadline is towards the end of May. So there could be a lot of unease at State House if we get to meeting day in town in early March and no final decisions have been made. Because lawmakers really need to know, “Hey, where’s my district?” Where am I going to campaign? Especially if a lot of single-member districts are created in the House and Senate. So there is certainly a lack of time associated with this problem.
He’s VPR’s senior political reporter, Bob Kinzel. Bob, thank you very much for the update.
My pleasure, Liam.
Do you have questions, comments or advice? Send us a message or contact reporter Bob Kinzel @VPRKinzel.