The draft proposal favored by Progressive and Republican board members would create 138 single-seat districts and six two-seat districts. The plan is a radical departure from the current legislative district map — it would more than double the number of single-seat districts. The two Democrats and the chair of the board oppose the change and have floated a proposal to less drastically tweak the existing legislative map.
“The 4-to-3 vote had the ideologists on one side and the pragmatists on the other,” Davis said.
The seven-member board has not yet voted out a final recommendation, which will ultimately go to town boards of civil authority for review. It is expected to do so on Thursday.
Single-member districts are a nonstarter, Davis said, because a number of municipalities would be divided into separate voting districts. Some of those towns include: Bennington, Springfield, Lyndon, St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, Franklin, Morristown, Waterbury, Milton, Grand Isle, Monkton, Hartford, Ira, East Montpelier, Swanton and Fayston.
“The primary problem of the single-member plan is that it will cause more problems than it solves,” Davis said.
In towns that would be split into multiple districts, town clerks would be required to offer separate polling stations to accommodate different sets of voters in a given municipality.
Davis expects that if such a plan is ultimately approved by the board, the Legislature would reject a single-member district proposal. He said the House Government Operations Committee will say “thank you for your report” and fall back on a plan similar to the one presented to the board by Gerry Gossens last week, which more closely resembles the current legislative apportionment map.
Although the board hopes to revise the single-seat plan in order to reduce the number of towns divided by the new district lines, Davis remains skeptical whether the Legislature will use it. Lawmakers might say the “objective is good in theory,” he said, but because small alterations to district lines are bound to increase the deviation percentages, it could end up in court because of potential infringements on the one-person, one-vote requirement of the U.S. Constitution.
The state must reshuffle districts every 10 years in response to demographic shifts tracked by the U.S. Census. Each member of the House is supposed to represent approximately 4,172.
Davis says the minority parties would have an advantage if the state adopts a higher number of single-seat districts because it could result in Democratic incumbents being pitted against one another. Among those seats apparently targeted by the minority members of the board is the one held by House Speaker Shap Smith.
Should the map (favored) by the board’s minority-party members become law, Smith would be forced to run against fellow Democrat Rep. Mark Woodward for a single-district seat.
Board members are required by statute to remain “impartial” during the redistricting proceedings, and they have said they will not to discuss incumbency.
Democrats have held a super majority in the House for two election cycles.
The two minority parties — the GOP and the Progressives — lost additional seats in the 2010 election, while the Democrats boosted their number to 98 House members in all.
Currently, there are a total of 108 legislative districts in Vermont. Sixty-six of those are single-seat districts, and the remaining 42 districts are two-member districts.
The total number of representatives remains unchanged in either redistricting scenario – there would be 150 House members no matter how the districts are divided up.
An administrative nightmare?
Town Clerk Carla Lawrence of Waterbury, one of the towns that would be carved into two districts under the apportionment map now under review, said that if the district were split, it would not be “healthy for the town.” She also expected it would be an “administrative nightmare.” Lawrence said she believes she would be obliged to manage two separate sets of voting booths.
Alison Kaiser, president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association, is also a member of Stowe’s Board of Civil Authority. Like her colleagues around the state, Kaiser will have an opportunity to review the Apportionment Board’s plan on July 1, long before it goes to the Legislature for final approval. Kaiser, who is also Stowe’s town clerk, recalled that the last time the map came to the local Board of Civil Authority, it wasn’t a big deal. Stowe became a single-member district in 2002.
“Last time the borders of the district were just Stowe, so we sent back a letter and said ‘OK’,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser does not know what to expect this time around, but she anticipates that if towns are split up by district lines, there will be a need for “serious voter education” to make sure town members know which part of the district they belong to.
A more democratic approach?
Steve Hingtgen, a former Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor and a member of the Apportionment Board, says that single-seat districts are more democratic because it’s easier for voters to understand who they are casting ballots for when they go to the polls. Instead of being faced with four or more candidates for two seats on the Election Day ballot, voters would see contenders on the ballot for one seat.
Even though during Thursday’s meeting there was general consensus among board members that they didn’t want to split up towns, the majority of members voted to approve the preliminary proposal, which divides roughly 17 towns into new districts.
Neale Lunderville, one of the (Republican) members who voted in favor of the single-member district plan, was ready to compromise as the board moves forward.
“We need to look at opportunities to put the divided towns into two-member districts,” Lunderville said during Thursday’s meeting.
Board member Hingtgen suggested in a memo to the board that one of the benefits of one-member districts over two-member districts is that “voters find the voting process to be simpler and more direct.”
“They do not have to perform a calculus to determine how their two votes will interact with one another,” Hingtgen wrote. “Some voters walk in to the voting booth not realizing they can vote for two of the candidates until they see the ballot.”
If the board recommends the plan this week, it will go to municipal boards of civil authority for the next round of review on July 1. Ultimately, the final proposal for the redistricting map will go to the Legislature for approval.
The Apportionment Board is also in the process of redistricting state Senate seats.
CORRECTION: We stated that Stowe had been a single-member district for “a long time, and its district lines haven’t changed during the last several reapportionment debates.” This was incorrect. The town has been a single district since 2002.