Davis says redistricting proposal is “impractical”

The Apportionment Board at work. VTD/Josh Larkin

The Apportionment Board at work. VTD/Josh Larkin

The Apportionment Board’s preliminary House redistricting proposal is “impractical,” according to Eric Davis, a longtime Vermont political observer and a retired professor of political science from Middlebury

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.

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  • David Zuckerman

    Just for accuracy, The Progressives did not lose any seats in the last election. All of the incumbents won and Rep. Chris Pearson replaced me in the Burlington seat in the old north end.

    Also, Burlington and other municipalities have had multiple voting districts for years. Voters are smart enough to understand. We (Burlington) have two voting locations that have three different legislative districts voting in each of them. While not simple, it works just fine.

  • David Zuckerman

    I might add that regardless of who it benefits, it seems that a process that is more democratic and produces a result that is more reflective of the electorate would be a step forward. The multi seat districts are gerrymandered to benefit one party in each area while the minority party (any of the three) gets squeezed out.

  • Professor Davis, it was the idealists that brought us such things as the interstate road system, rovers on the moon and Mars and even that college you now work at. Somebody or bodies had a vision and a goal that required some heavy lifting – and the work wasn’t shunned.

    If indeed single member districts would under current law require multiple voting areas then all that is needed is a simple change in law.

    The biggest problem here is the Democrats (and Republicans too, but they aren’t going to be deciding this one). As a group the Dems have absolutely no interest in giving voters more choice or a closer connection to their state and federal legislatures especially where it might mean a loss of political influence on their part.

    I remember working with some folks several years ago in an attempt to move instant runoff voting forward – the chair of the Vermont Republican Party sat down with me to talk about the issue over coffee. The Democratic Party chair was totally uninterested – and I do mean totally uninterested.

    After all democracy is for the winners, right? And the winners democracy is that which maintains their hold on power.

    Let’s be like those who built interstates and placed men on the moon and drove remote controlled rovers on Mars and built the great universities of this nation – let’s be idealist and not shun the necessary work.

  • paul poirier

    Barre City has had single member districts since the original apportionment of the 60’s. At one time Barre had 4 single districts with-in its borders and today it has two 2 districts with-in Barre and shares a third with Berlin. People who say that it will be complicated or confusing to voters are really under estinating the intelligence of voters.

    The fact is that single member districts are easier to campaign in and the cost of elections and thus the opportunity for more contested elections is greater in the single member districts. This concept has been advocated every ten years and is defeated by the incumbents in the legislature.

    In the end, Vermont will be no different than Texas in re-apportioning the legislative districts. It will be decided in the office of Speaker Smith and to the perceived benefit of the Democratic party.

    It does not always worek out as planned,as all one has to do is look at the apportioned map of 1982 which was created by a large Republican majority. In 1985 the democrats won their first control of the House of Representatives and the rest is history.

  • Lee Madden

    Brattleboro has had 3 or 4 single seat districts for years. It is not confusing and doesn’t require multiple polling places. The current 3 districts all vote in the same polling place (the high school gym). They just go to the District 1, 2 or 3 line and are checked in accordingly.

  • Mike Curtis

    How on earth can anyone defend the idea of putting 1/2 of Morrisville in with Johnson?

    You can’t even drive from Johnson to Morrisville without going through Hyde Park (not reasonably anyway). Why not join 1/2 of Milton with 1/2 of Shelburne? It just doesn’t make sense – not unless you are looking to score political points and rattle the Speaker’s cage.

    Claiming the current lines are “gerrymandered” while defending this other goofy map just doesn’t pass the laugh test.

  • Liz Schlegel

    I live in a two-seat district. The new proposal from the reapportionment board means my community will still be served by two reps, but it cuts our town (Waterbury) into two districts. Like Stowe, our town has never been split before.

    I think the board is solving a problem (two seat districts) that isn’t really a problem and in doing so, splitting towns unnecessarily. It disenfranchises communities to split towns.

  • Steve Hingtgen

    On the merits, one-seat districts are almost always clearly superior. The purpose of the LAB is to offer a model plan for the legislature to use in its deliberations. Are there really political scientists arguing that districts should be drawn for the convenience of incumbents rather than the benefit of voters. Should the LAB consider the residences of incumbents when drawing a map? Should it then also consider the residences of the likely challengers?

  • Neil Mortensen

    I’m curious to know what law in particular requires different polling places for multiple districts in a town. Is it some sort of federal access law or a state law? Does anyone know where one could find the law in question? I’d love to get a look at it. The only thing I could find was section § 2501 and § 2147 (5) of election law which seems to indicate that you don’t need separate polling places. In fact, it seems to specifically state that it’s okay so long as you accurately split the voter rolls for a town and follow the usual rules for ballots and voter notification. Am I missing something here?

  • Steve Hingtgen

    Neil, you are not missing anything. There is no requirement for creating multiple polling places. And most towns do not create multiple polling places. In Burlington, for instance, Ward boundaries and House district boundaries do not align at all. Voters always vote at their ward polling place regardless of what office or issue they are voting for. In some cases, a single ward polling place will have 3 or 4 different ballot prepared and the voter simple walks in and states his/her name and the election official looks up which ballot to give him/her. This is the least expensive and least confusing way for voters to vote year in and year out.

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