A seven-member Senate committee in an unannounced hearing Thursday unanimously approved a significant reconfiguration of Vermont’s state Senate districts.
The proposal, which would determine the distribution of Vermont’s 30 senators for the next 10 years, shifts representation from the Northeast Kingdom to Chittenden County and breaks up the latter’s current — and highly unusual — six-member district. Those changes are a result of population shifts measured by the 2020 Census, as well as a law passed in 2019 prohibiting Senate districts with more than three members.
In Vermont, Senate districts roughly follow county lines, with most represented by one to three at-large members. Each senator should represent as close to 21,436 constituents as possible. Committee members agreed from the start of the redistricting process that they would not consider moving to entirely single-member districts, as was debated at length in the House.
While the Senate proposal garnered unanimous support Thursday from the tri-partisan Senate Reapportionment Committee, politicos on both sides of the ideological spectrum outside of the Statehouse expressed concern over it — as well as the process leading to it.
Vermont Republican Party Chair Paul Dame said he was confident the map favored Democrats and incumbents, arguing that more conservative communities such as Barre and Northfield were drowned out in large districts encompassing liberal strongholds, such as Montpelier.
“If you gave Paul Dame a magic wand and he got to draw the whole map by himself, I don’t know that I could draw a map that would guarantee you Republican victory,” Dame said. “But if you gave the Democrats all the power, which they have, I don’t know that they could do anything more gerrymandered than the map I’m looking at right now.”
Jim Dandeneau, a former Vermont Democratic Party staffer, had a dramatically different take on the map: “Depending on retirements, this map seems like it will break the super-majority for Democrats.” His party currently controls 21 seats, while Republicans hold seven and Progressives two.
Should the full Senate approve the map, it would grant a seventh seat to populous Chittenden County and split it into three new districts: a three-member Chittenden-Central district including Burlington, Winooski and Essex Junction; a three-member Chittenden-Southeast district ranging from South Burlington to Charlotte in the west and Underhill and Bolton in the east; and a single-member Chittenden-North district that would include Milton, Fairfax, Westford and Essex town.
The proposed creation of a Chittenden-North district garnered the hottest reactions from Dame and Dandeneau. Dandeneau said he believes the new district to be “solidly Republican” and could cost Democrats a seat.
Dame, who previously represented Essex Junction in the House, said “Essex is getting screwed on this new map.”
“What I’m seeing happening to my old home district of Essex is the closest thing to gerrymandering I think I’ve ever seen in Vermont. It’s very alarming,” Dame said. “Essex is the second-largest community in the state. They cut it in half and made it a junior partner to two different Senate districts.”
Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, told VTDigger he knows that “there are people who aren’t going to like it.” But he said the committee looked at several different configurations in that region, and the one they landed on was the most sensical.
“The way we wound up, I think, for the Chittenden North District works because you have towns like Milton and Fairfax, and really a large part of Essex town, as well as Westford, are rural towns, a lot of it is farming,” he said. “So that actually makes sense.”
Currently, three counties of the Northeast Kingdom are served by four senators — two representing a district that includes Essex and Orleans counties and two representing Caledonia County. The new map would split Essex and Orleans into single-member districts and eliminate one seat representing Caledonia. (One of that county’s two senators, Republican Joe Benning, has already announced his plans to give up his seat to run for lieutenant governor.)
Chittenden County would also retain its Grand Isle district, which historically has included Colchester and has been represented for decades by Democratic Sen. Dick Mazza.
The proposed map makes other tweaks throughout the state to keep the ratio of residents to senators as even as possible, like expanding the geographical footprint of the Rutland district to compensate for population attrition.
Rutland was one of three Vermont counties to decline in population between 2010 and 2020, according to Census figures released last summer — a 1.7% drop, in Rutland’s case — but the county would retain its three seats under the plan. Essex and Caledonia counties experienced even more significant declines of 6.1% and 3.2%, respectively.
Chittenden County, meanwhile, grew by 7.5%, while Lamoille County increased by 6% and Franklin and Grand Isle counties by 4.6% apiece.
As for accusations that the committee drafted a map favorable to one party or the other, Brock, as well as Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, pointed to the vote count.
“The vote speaks for itself. It was 7-0 across party lines,” Pearson said. “So I think all seven of us got some of what we thought made sense and accepted stuff we didn’t like. That’s the process.”
Despite the significant nature of the proposal, Thursday’s meeting — let alone the vote — was not warned on the Legislature’s website, as is required. A legislative staffer updated the agenda early Friday and notified VTDigger of the change. The meeting was broadcast via the reapportionment committee’s YouTube page. The map wasn’t made available to VTDigger until nearly 7 p.m., and it wasn’t posted online for public viewing until after 8 p.m.
Dame said the Senate committee’s entire map-drawing process was “a black box.” He only learned that the committee held a Thursday hearing, let alone voted on a map, after seeing news coverage late that night.
Senators cannot formally vote on the reapportionment bill, H.722, until they receive it from the House. The House passed the bill with a new House map on Thursday. From there, the Senate Reapportionment Committee will insert their map into the bill, send it to the Senate floor, then back to the House for concurrence before it heads to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described the location of a three-member Chittenden-Southeast district.