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Reapportionment? Redistricting? We 'Ask Bob' About What The 2020 Census Means For Vermont's Political Map

A map of Vermont's legislative districts.
The Snelling Center for Government, Courtesy
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This year, reapportionment has been delayed. So what does the Census mean for Vermont's political map?

After more than a year of delays, the findings of the 2020 Census have been released. The once-a-decade count is used to realign both the country’s 435 districts of the U.S. House, as well as state legislatures nationwide, to reflect changes in population. It's a process known as redistricting in some places, and it’s called reapportionment in Vermont. Now, delays at the federal level mean Vermont’s apportionment board has gotten a late start to redrawing the state’s political map.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel to discuss the reapportionment process now underway in Vermont. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: In a lot of states, the change in population has a real big impact on the configuration of U.S. House districts. For instance, this year, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and California will all lose one seat in the U.S. House due to a drop in population. And on the flipside, because of population gains, Texas will be adding two seats in the House, and Florida and North Carolina get one extra seat. 

But Vermont is in that category of states that have only one seat in the House. So this part of the census isn't going to affect us, is that right? 

Bob Kinzel: That's exactly the case, Mitch. Based on the new census, each U.S. House District should have roughly 700,000 people in it. Now, Vermont's new population [count] is 643,000, just under that threshold. But every state is guaranteed at least one seat in the US House.

It's interesting to note that of the seven states that currently have only one member, Montana has gained enough population to have two seats in the U.S. House in 2023. Now for Vermont, to gain another seat in the House, essentially, we would have to double our population.

Oof, that doesn't sound like it's gonna happen anytime soon. According to the 2020 census numbers, Vermont has gained roughly 20,000 people over the last decade. That's about a 3% increase. How will that increase affect the redrawing of Vermont [state] House and [state] Senate districts, if at all? 

Well, it's going to, Mitch, and to put that 3% growth rate in perspective, it's a continuation of a trend in Vermont that started in 2000. Back between 1960 and 2004, Vermont’s population grew, on average, about 12% a year. So you can see that rate has really slowed down. And while the number of people in Vermont hasn't grown all that much in the last ten years, where folks live definitely has [changed].

What we're seeing here is a continuation of a population shift primarily from Southern Vermont — that would be Bennington, Rutland, Windham and Windsor counties — to the northwestern part of the state, in Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, even Lamoille County. So, this means that the rural parts of Vermont will have less representation in the 2023 legislature, and in the northwestern part we'll have more.

And Mitch, you can really see this shift if you look at the list of largest cities in Vermont, over the last 30 years. Now, 30 years ago, the top four cities were Burlington, Rutland, Bennington and Brattleboro. Based on the new census, Burlington’s still number one, but the others have all disappeared off the list. Essex is number two, South Burlington is three and Colchester is number four. So that really sums up what's been happening in Vermont over the past three decades.

And that shift in population in Vermont over the past 10 years, that's really going to have the biggest impact on this realignment of the state's new legislative map?

Absolutely. And it's going to make a huge difference, and probably five or ten seats are going to shift from the southern part of the state to the northwest quadrant, and maybe even one Senate seat.

If we look at the Vermont house, each district is supposed to have about 4,300 people. Some have more, some have less. And the reapportionment board wants to make sure that the deviation between towns is as low as possible. And they use 10% as their benchmark.

That doesn't sound like a very hard job, but it really is, because the house map is like a huge puzzle. When you subtract some people from a district over here, and you add some people to a district over there, it has a rippling effect on the entire map. So, one change in the middle of the state can have a huge impact on dozens of other districts.

Well, you explained how the apportionment board decides which House districts need to be changed. What about over in the Senate?

In the Senate, it's a little easier because you've only got 30 senators, but the new map will still have to reflect that shift in population. Now, this could mean taking away one of the two seats in the Essex-Orleans district and increasing the Grand Isle-Chittenden district from one senator to two. But, if the board decides to keep two senators in Essex-Orleans, then they're going to have to take some towns from neighboring counties so that that Essex-Orleans district has enough population.

Another big change that's going to occur is in Chittenden County. Right now it has six state Senators. It is the largest Senate district in the country. What's going to happen in Chittenden County?

Several years ago, lawmakers voted to break the Chittenden district apart into smaller districts. As you mentioned, it’s the largest in the country by far. It was approved during the 2019 session. it was felt that having six senators was too unwieldy; it favored incumbents, and that the campaigns were just way too expensive.

So now the board has to decide: should there be two, three-member districts? Should there be three, two-member districts? Or, even, could there be six one-member districts? Whatever they do, there's going to be a shift in representation away from the City of Burlington, to the nearby towns of Colchester, South Burlington, Shelburne and Williston. I actually think this is going to be one of the biggest decisions that the board is going to have to make.

It's going to be so interesting to see what is decided there. What is the timeline for all these decisions to be made?

Well, the board hopes to have a preliminary map ready in the middle of October. Then they're going to take a lot of testimony on it, and they hope to finalize that map by the end of the year.

Then, it really gets interesting. That proposal goes to the Legislature. Both the House and Senate will actually debate and vote on the final map. And any towns that are unhappy with that final map will lobby each chamber to make changes, so this can be a very political issue. Once the Legislature has given its approval to the final map, towns that are still unhappy can appeal their case directly to the Vermont Supreme Court. However, judges will be very reluctant to overturn a legislative decision, unless there's a big population deviation issue. If it's a matter of people saying, “hey, our town has nothing in common with that other town, so we don't want to be in a district with them,” judges are very likely to reject that appeal.

Bob, we have been talking about Vermont’s state-level districts, we've discussed some changes in other states when it comes to representation in Congress, too. Is there anything else that stands out to you from the 2020 Census, maybe some other national changes, that we're seeing in our state or region?

I think what we're seeing, nationally, in terms of the growth of the non-white population, is certainly happening in Vermont. The percentages are very dramatic, but the actual numbers are a little bit smaller.

For instance, the Hispanic population in Vermont grew from 1.5% to 2.4% in the last 10 years, that's the third largest Hispanic growth rate in the country. It's about 6,300 people that have been added. And Vermont's black population grew from 1% to 1.4%. That's an increase of about 40%, or 2,700 people. So the trends that we're seeing around the country are very true in Vermont.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

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