Reporter debrief: Apportionment board proposes shaking up legislative districts
Every 10 years, Vermont redraws its House and Senate legislative district boundaries to reflect changes in population based on the recent census.
This year, the Vermont Legislative Apportionment Board is proposing single-member districts for all House and Senate seats. That change could cause some big changes in the makeup of Vermont’s legislature.
VPR's Liam Elder-Connors spoke with senior political reporter Bob Kinzel to discuss these changes and the impact that they could have. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liam Elder-Connors: So the apportionment board has the responsibility of redrawing the actual geographic boundaries for all 150 House members and the 30 senators. This year, they're making some unusual and controversial recommendations — especially in the Senate. Tell us about what they're proposing there.
Liam, the board is recommending that all Senate districts be single-member districts. And they did this on a 4 to 3 vote, so it was quite controversial. Now to give you an idea what a major change this is, let's look at the current Senate map.
There's one six-member district; that's in Chittenden County. That is the largest Senate district in the entire country. There are three three-member districts. There are six two-member districts. And there are only three single-member districts at this time. So the board is saying "Let's make them all single-member districts." So this would create 30 separate Senate districts in Vermont, and this would be a huge, huge change.
Well, what about the House? They're looking at single-member districts as well. Can you tell us a little bit about that proposal?
Yes. And this was also a 4 to 3 vote on the apportionment board. So it shows there was a lot of discussion and debate over this issue in the House. While the impact is significant, it's not as great as we just discussed over in the Senate. And here's why.
"I think everyone on the apportionment board feels that there is real value to smaller districts. At least in principle, where you can do them."
Right now, the Vermont House has 44 two-member districts. It also has 62 single-member districts. So roughly 40% of the House is currently elected from single-member districts. Apportionment board Chairman Tom Little says there's definitely an argument for single-member districts because they reduce the number of constituents any member represents.
"I think everyone on the apportionment board feels that there is real value to smaller districts. At least in principle, where you can do them," Little said.
Now, Liam, the board has heard from a number of towns that have two-member districts. And for the most part, they want to keep them. And they feel very strongly about this issue. So this is far from being settled.
Bob, the new legislative district maps are supposed to reflect how Vermont's population has shifted in the last decade. What can you tell us about how the population has shifted and why it's important?
Well, Liam, this is really the most important part of apportionment and the new census. And what we've seen in Vermont, really over the last 25 years, is a shift of population from the Northeast Kingdom and the southern part of the state over to the northwest region of Vermont — especially in Chittenden and Franklin counties.
And one of the jobs of the apportionment board is to ensure that Senate districts and House districts contain roughly the same number of people. And then the board needs to adjust the geographical boundaries of these districts when there is a shift in population. Board Chairman Tom Little told me that the population changes this year are going to require some key changes in both the House and the Senate.
"I think what we saw this time around was something at least close to a tipping point where the very incremental changes might not always work."
"I think what we saw this time around was something at least close to a tipping point where the very incremental changes might not always work," Little said.
So, Liam, it's important to point out that there is no question that this population shift is going to reduce the political clout of the more rural parts of Vermont. And it's going to increase the clout of Vermont suburban areas.
The apportionment board has made the recommendation to have single-member districts for all the House and Senate seats. What's the next step in this process?
Liam, this is when things get political and they get really interesting. Those recommendations from the board have been filed with the House and Senate, and it's the Legislature that will make the final decision.
Now in the past, the Senate has usually appointed a special bipartisan apportionment committee to take testimony and to draw the final Senate map. Over in the House, this work is usually done by the House Government Operations Committee. Now by tradition, the Senate doesn't interfere with the House map and the House doesn't interfere with the Senate map. Because if they do, it sets off a huge power struggle between the two chambers. I think the big decision facing these House and Senate committees is whether or not they want to go along with the single-member district approach. That decision will guide all of their other work.
Well, Bob, are lawmakers bound to accept the recommendations from the apportionment board? Or can they kind of just create their own map?
They can do whatever they want, Liam. Now, if a town feels very strongly that a terrible decision has been made in the drawing of their new district boundaries by the apportionment board, they can lobby the Legislature directly to make those changes. And if that doesn't work, they can appeal the legislative decision to the Vermont Supreme Court.
But the court in the past has been very reluctant to interfere in this legislative process unless there are population issues involved. For instance, maybe a district has too few people or way too many. So if a town says "Hey, we don't like this map because our town doesn't have anything in common with this other town in our new district, so we don't want to merge with them," that's not going to be a compelling argument. And it's unlikely that the court would step in and order a change.
Well, there's an election coming up in November 2022. And it seems like this new map is going to be obviously pretty important to that. So what's the timeframe for when lawmakers need to actually vote on creating the new district maps?
Liam, you're right — it's absolutely critical to election 2022. Because candidates can't file their election papers until they know what district they're running in. Now, candidates can begin to file their papers at the end of April, and the actual deadline for filing is towards the end of May. So there could be a lot of uneasiness at the statehouse if we get to town meeting day at the beginning of March and no final decisions have been made. Because lawmakers really need to know "Hey, where's my district? Where am I going to be campaigning?" Especially if a lot of single-member districts are created in the House and in the Senate. So there is definitely a time crunch associated with this issue.
That's VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel. Bob, thanks so much for the update.
My pleasure, Liam.