The Legislative Apportionment Board finalized its proposed redistricting plan for the House of Representatives on Thursday. After several months of back and forth over single-member district seats for House members, the map the board approved on Thursday looks more like the one currently in use.
Traditionally, there has been a preponderance of dual-member districts, but the two Republicans and two Progressives on the six-member panel pushed for a higher number of single-member districts because they said it would improve voter representation. In some cases, the new redistricting lines divided towns in half and would have resulted in two-way races between Democratic incumbents.
In July, the Boards of Civil Authority in municipalities across the state weighed in on the Apportionment Board’s recommendations. Though a number of BCAs, including those in Burlington and St. Johnsbury, rejected single-member districts, enough of the local authorities accepted the new district lines to significantly increase the number of single-member districts statewide.
The map the Legislative Apportionment Board approved on Thursday includes a total of 121 legislative districts: 82 one-member districts, 29 two-member districts and one 10-member Burlington district.
The original plan the Legislative Apportionment Board approved at the end of June was made up of 138 single-member districts and 6 two-member districts.
The General Assembly, which is dominated by Democrats in the House and the Senate, will take up the Apportionment Board’s recommendations in January. Lawmakers in the majority party are expected to back a plan that is closer to the current district map, which includes 108 legislative districts. Sixty-six of those are single-seat districts, and the remaining 42 districts are two-member districts.
Board Chairman Tom Little attributed the shift toward more single-member districts to the higher rate of responses from BCAs in this reapportionment cycle.
Every 10 years, in sync with new population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau report, each state across the nation reassesses district lines for state representatives and senators. The district lines are realigned to reflect shifts in population.
In Vermont, Chittenden County has continued to grow, while southern and northeastern sections of the state have seen a decline in population.
Each member of the House is supposed to represent approximately 4,172 Vermonters; each senator is supposed to represent about 20,858 people. The board approved a Senate plan in July.
Burlington’s BCA rejected the Apportionment Board’s proposal but did not provide an alternative plan. Under statute, there can only be two members in each district, but because there was not sufficient feedback from BCAs in the Burlington area, the board decided to let the General Assembly settle the question.
Two modifications made by the Apportionment Board split up Waterbury and divided St. Albans into three one-member districts.
Waterbury’s BCA requested that the city not be divided. Officials offered various proposals for maintaining a two-member district with surrounding towns. Huntington, on the other hand, wanted its district to include a portion of Waterbury. The board passed a proposal following Huntington’s recommendation and combined the western portion of Waterbury with Bolton, Huntington and Buels Gore. The east side of Waterbury would be its own one-member district under this proposal.
St. Albans town BCA asked the board to approve a two-member district, but local officials said they would accept three one-member districts as a second choice. The board approved the latter proposal.
“I think the board reacted responsibly to the concerns expressed by over 150 towns,” Little said. “However … the wishes of towns sometimes conflicted with those of surrounding towns.”
The board approved the plan in a 4-2 vote. The yeas included Progressives Megan Brook and Steve Hingtgen, Gerry Gossens, a Democrat, and Little, a Republican. Neale Lunderville and Robert Roper, both Republicans, opposed the plan.
“I’d say the final plan moved back toward the status quo,” Lunderville said. “I think it’s important for this board to present some fresh options to the General Assembly, and although I have a deep respect for the work that everyone has done, really, it just didn’t align with what I thought would be a fresh look at this.”
Based on data collected from the 2010 census, the “ideal number” of citizens for every one law maker in the house is 4,172 Vermont citizens. Districts’ deviation percentage from the ideal number theoretically determines how districts are redrawn. In reality, though, the process is politically charged.
According to Little, the deviation percentage should be in the teens. Population figures from the secretary of state’s office show Vermont’s deviation percentage is currently 45 percent. The deviation percentage in the plan approved on Thursday is 20.30 percent. In 2002, the House plan deviated from the ideal number by 18.99 percent.
With the approval of the redistricting map, the board’s task is finished, and pending an approximated 90-page written report to accompany the map that will justify the board’s decisions, the rest is up to the General Assembly.
Chairman Little suspects some of the board will be called in to testify as soon as legislation gets the ball rolling. He anticipates the House Government Operations Committee will start working on redistricting sometime in October.
“I think it’s an improvement over the current map, and it’s driven largely by population shifts, which I think is worth a lot,” Little said.
Board member Lunderville agreed with the chair.
“Honestly, I’ve enjoyed this immensely, and it has been a great board to work with, and the chair set the right tone, and folks have been good to work with, and it’s a really interesting problem to crack,” Lunderville said. “I still think in both cases, these maps this body produced are better than what stands today, but in both cases I would have liked this body to go further.”