This commentary is by Robert Bristow-Johnson of Burlington, a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting for Burlington.
On Jan. 4, the Vermont House Government Operations Committee met to review and discuss the work product of the Vermont Legislative Apportionment Board.
The proposed map that was adopted by a thin 4-3 vote has, as its primary feature, 150 single-member districts for the Vermont House of Representatives, beginning with the November 2022 general election. The map that was defeated in this 4-3 vote has a combination of single-member and two-member districts, as does the existing legislative district map currently in operation in our state. Currently, there are 45 two-member House districts and 60 single-member districts in Vermont.
Probabilistically, about half of the two-member districts that are divided into two single-member districts will have their incumbent two members residing separately in the two single-member districts and both shall be eligible to be reelected in the next election. Of course, they are not guaranteed reelection; there are campaigns to be contested and voters to be persuaded to support these incumbents.
But about half of the divided two-member districts will have both incumbents residing in just one of the two new single-member districts. That means one of those incumbents will not necessarily be returning to the Vermont House.
This plan is guaranteed to preclude about 22 incumbent House representatives from returning to office no matter what voters might have to say about their preference and of the performance of these legislators. We know that three of these culled incumbents are in Burlington. Our Speaker of the House is in one of those districts.
This is a structural change that systemically favors “new blood” at the expense of dozens of incumbent legislators and of the majority of voters in their districts that support these legislators. Each of the 22 incumbents who are removed from the Legislature by this culling is replaced by someone running for an “open seat” that would be created by this single-district plan.
The party that holds the majority of seats in the Vermont House of Representatives stands to lose more in this culling of incumbents than do the minority parties. But elections are zero-sum games and the parties that, on average, suffer less loss due to this culling will actually receive a net gain from it. The minority parties will gain at the expense of the majority party, not because of voters weighing in and rejecting any of these culled incumbents, but because it is impossible that both incumbents can occupy a single seat in the Legislature.
Consider an employer in either private or public sectors having a candidate search for highly-trained employees who are difficult to find and recruit.
We voters are in the role of employers and we want to recruit and elect the very best candidates that we can find in our districts. Casting a broader net in this candidate search increases the size of the applicant pool and gives the employer more options to select from and less chance of having to settle for a mediocre applicant that is the best of a smaller pool.
Sometimes increasing the size of the applicant pool can get better candidates to select from. But reducing the size of the applicant pool will never increase the number of qualified candidates to choose from. And sometimes reducing the applicant pool does remove who would be the best candidate.
A reduced applicant pool never helps the employer (or the voter) in their candidate search and sometimes harms their choice by reducing or removing options.
One size does not always fit all
Consider districts in the Northeast Kingdom or some other rural part of Vermont. Many of these districts have four or more towns in one single-member district. One district contains nine towns and spans two counties in the Legislative Apportionment Board proposed map.
It would be silly to require these districts to merge into two-member districts even if that might mean a larger candidate pool and more options for the voters. As it is, with a single-member district, constituents may already have to drive 20 miles or more to meet with their representative. Why make it possibly 30 or 40 miles for them to drive?
They know that their needs are best served with single-member districts because of the large geographic size of their district.
But “urban” Vermont districts do not have that problem of being too large to conveniently manage and serve constituents. We Vermonters in more dense city settings do not have any pressure to reduce our district size that the rural Vermonters might have. Our districts are already quite small, geographically, and single-member districts in these dense settings can be too small.
That rural Vermonters are sometimes advantaged with single-member districts does not mean that urban Vermonters are similarly advantaged. And we can be clearly disadvantaged with very small districts and the loss of candidate options that come with small districts.
Anomalous situations and problems
Hesiod (ca. 700 BCE) wrote: “Observe due measure; moderation is best in all things.” With extreme actions and extreme situations, sometimes anomalies result.
Consider the proposed House district in Burlington, Chittenden 14-8, encompassing the UVM Athletic Campus and Redstone Campus with residential homes on Henderson Terrace, Robinson Parkway and University Terrace. The mean or “ideal” single-member district size for equal representation in Vermont is 4,287, but in this district, 4,180 are students living in dormitories or university apartments and 140 people are living in permanent, usually single-family homes.
Particularly in nonpresidential years (like 2022 or 2026), how many people do we expect to vote in this district for their House representative? In normal residential districts, we might expect about 1,500 voters and a winning candidate getting at least 800 votes. At least 800 citizens with franchise agree that this winning candidate is a good choice.
But in this proposed CHI-14-8 district, perhaps 200 voters turn out and 100 voters suffice to elect a representative. How much mandate does that winning candidate have?
Listen to the towns in our state
Several towns have weighed in on this imposition of single-member districts. Cities such as Montpelier, Barre and Winooski are very comfortable as a single two-member district and have asked the Legislative Apportionment Board to “Don’t divide us.” Three of the seven Legislative Apportionment Board members are listening, but unfortunately four members are not.
Burlington has 10 House representatives and this would force the city to administer elections in eight wards and 10 districts. Some of these wards already have three voter checklists and three voting machines in a state House election. Increasing the number of districts will not reduce that number and is simply unwelcome by those who have to run elections in our town.
Hopefully the elected Legislature of our state will listen to Vermonters better than this thin majority of the Legislative Apportionment Board.