Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
On May 14, 1965, Rep. Frank Hutchins stood before his fellow Vermont House members and cried. Tears of anger, frustration and sorrow rolled down his cheeks as he denounced a plan he was sure would mean the end for his small town of Stannard, and for the state of Vermont as he knew it.
The end was also near for the legislative battle that Hutchins and representatives of other small towns had been waging. As the 66-year-old farmer spoke, the Legislature was moments away from ending a tradition as old as the state, having each town send a representative to the Vermont House. But federal judges, basing their decision on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, had declared the arrangement unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to reapportion the House in order to honor the principle of “one person, one vote” rather than “one town, one vote.” Before reapportionment, the Vermont system had given tiny towns like Stannard the same representation as the state’s most populous community, the city of Burlington. Reapportionment would be more democratic, since each House member would represent roughly the same number of people.
Still, the retreat from tradition troubled many Vermonters. “When outsiders come into this parlor and tear us to pieces, I regret it,” Hutchins said. The reapportionment plan would cut the number of representatives from 246 to 150, its current number. The change, he warned, would weaken small towns and ensure that many would never again have their own elected representatives. Once the Legislature approved the reapportionment, it planned to adjourn. After elections that fall, the new slimmed-down House would reconvene, minus many smaller-town representatives, like Hutchins. In this, his final speech before the Legislature, Hutchins implored his fellow lawmakers: “Don’t forget Stannard.”
The battle to realign power in the state started long before reapportionment occurred. The one-town, one-vote system in the House had critics from almost the moment it was codified in the Vermont Constitution in 1777. (Only the House existed at the time; the Senate would not be established until 1836.) The framers of the state Constitution had written that they intended to ensure that the “Freemen of this State might enjoy the benefit of election, as equally as may be.” Apparently believing that all Vermont towns would grow at roughly the same pace, they wrote that beginning in 1784, all towns would send just one representative “forever thereafter.”
Undaunted by the phrase “forever thereafter,” however, some Vermonters began pushing for a change in the Constitution almost immediately. As early as 1785, members of the Council of Censors, which was responsible for calling constitutional conventions every seven years, proposed changing the Vermont Constitution to reduce the number of representatives. Instead of each town sending one representative, the councilors suggested having them allotted by county, with each county having a set number of seats to fill. That year the council also proposed that the state be divided into 50 election districts, each with roughly the same population and each having one legislator. The boundaries of the districts would be adjusted periodically as populations shifted. Both proposals failed.
The Council of Censors took another shot at reapportioning the House in 1793. It stuck with the idea of one town, one vote, but sought to limit that right to towns containing at least 40 families. Smaller towns could bond together to jointly elect a representative. That idea was again defeated at the constitutional convention, largely, it seems, because the majority still viewed this slightly more representative system as undemocratic. These opponents believed that to be democratic a system had to give communities, large and small, the power to protect the things they valued, something that wasn’t guaranteed if power were merely shared in proportion to population. Ensuring that each town had its own representative meant that people were more likely to know their representative and that someone in Montpelier would advocate for their community. That year, the council also suggested creating a senate, with counties granted one seat per 8,000 residents, but that proposal also died.
Over the years, the council continued to suggest amendments for reapportionment, all to no avail. In apparent frustration, the council issued a report in 1849, saying the one-town, one-vote system mocked the intent of the framers: “(W)hen it is considered that this form of representation was adopted ‘in order that the Freemen of this State might enjoy the benefit of elections as equally as may be, we are disposed to place it with that other anomaly, the existence and protection of a system of slavery in a country whose government is based upon the declaration that ‘all men are born free and equal.’ ” Before the Council of Censors could rewrite the constitution, it was written out of it. The council was abolished at a constitutional convention it had itself called in 1870, and its responsibilities shifted to the Legislature.
When the Legislature in 1920 refused to consider reapportionment, some legislators reacted angrily, complaining acidly that “(b)y representative government is not meant the representation of rocks and scenery but the representation of people.” Perhaps lawmakers in 1849 could ignore the fact that a House member might represent fewer than 100 people or as many as 4,300, but by 1962, the disparities were even more glaring. Stratton, with its 24 residents, had one vote in the House, as did Burlington with its 35,000 residents; combined, the state’s 25 largest cities and towns represented 55% of the population, but held only 10% of the seats in the Legislature.
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The disparity shocked some. William Jay Smith, who represented Poultney during the early 1960s, wrote: “What we have in Vermont is not just the struggle between rural and urban populations. What we have is not a rural dictatorship, but a rural aristocracy. Being in the Vermont House was for me like a journey back into the 18th century, when one had to own land to vote. The Vermont house is our House of Lords.”
That changed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures had to be apportioned based on population. A federal court in July 1964 ordered Vermont to reapportion both the House and the Senate. The court let the state hold its legislative elections that fall as usual, but ordered the newly elected lawmakers to reapportion the Legislature based on population by July 1965. So during the winter of 1965, members of what became known as the “suicide legislature” plotted their own demise.
In truth, of course, those from larger communities had a good chance of surviving the process. But many legislators from smaller towns argued hotly against the federal court ruling. Rep. Samuel Parsons of Hubbardton worried that if cities dominated the state, then Vermont’s character would be destroyed. “Cities aren’t healthy minded,” he warned. “(They cause you to) lose sight of what is honorable and dishonorable.”
Rep. W. Clark Hutchinson of Rochester was so opposed to reapportionment that he vowed to chain himself to his House desk if the measure passed. “We know that there is such a thing as honor and the sanctity of an oath, and that we intend to preserve it,” he said. “We know that forced reapportionment is loss of self-government, and we intend to fight, and we intend to vote against it now and forever.” The small towns that had always ruled Vermont were not going down without a fight.
The tension at the Statehouse was palpable, similar to that experienced in the Legislature nearly 40 years later during the fight over civil unions. In both cases, many lawmakers had to consider whether to vote for a bill that would cost them their seats. Despite the emotions, however, the vote wasn’t even close. Lawmakers approved reapportionment by a vote of 163 to 62. And no legislator chained himself to a desk.
The House would have 150 seats apportioned based on population, and the Senate, which had always distributed its seats more equitably, dropped the rule that even the smallest counties deserved their own Senate seat. Reapportionment realigned power in the state, shifting a greater proportion of seats to where more people lived, the cities.
As a byproduct, the changes also helped create a true two-party system. Democrats, who were stronger in more thickly settled areas, began to pick up seats and eventually took over the House from Republicans, who had relied on the many seats they had held in small, rural and reliably conservative towns.
This shift in perspective in the Legislature, with rural, small-town lawmakers now in the minority, and lawmakers from suburban and urban communities dominating, is still reverberating today. In reducing the number of rural representatives, reapportionment also had the unintended consequence of reducing the numbers of farmers in the Legislature. One farmer to leave was Frank Hutchins of Stannard.
As Hutchins might have predicted, a full half century passed before the town sent another representative to the Statehouse. Hutchins had warned that reapportionment would be the undoing of small towns in Vermont. He may have been right.
Author’s note: Stannard was merged into a House district with surrounding towns, and no one from Stannard was elected to the district’s seat for decades. Stannard didn’t send a representative to the House from 1965 until 2015, when Chip Troiano was sworn in after winning election to the Caledonia 2 District. Coincidently, Troiano lives on Hutchins Farm Road, named after Frank Hutchins’ family. Recalling Hutchins’ call of “Don’t forget Stannard,” in his first year in office, Troiano invited Hutchins’ daughter Una Lou, granddaughter Karen, and great-grandson Matt to the Statehouse and introduced them to the full House.