New reapportionment maps give northwestern Vermont more political power
Gov. Phil Scott recently signed Vermont's new reapportionment bill into law. It's legislation that redraws some House and Senate district boundaries to reflect changes in population in Vermont over the past 10 years.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with VPR’s senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel about the new reapportionment law. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So Bob, what do you see as the most important changes that voters will see for November's election?
Bob Kinzel: Mitch, I think the biggest changes will take place in the Vermont Senate. That's because as you mentioned, the new map needs to reflect population changes in Vermont that have taken place since the 2010 census. And that population trend, Mitch, is very clear.
Rutland [County] Sen. Brian Collamore is a member of the Senate Reapportionment Committee. Speaking on the Senate floor earlier this month, he told his colleagues that Vermont's population has grown roughly 3% in the last 10 years, and virtually all of the growth is concentrated in one part of the state:
"The northwest part of Vermont has grown significantly in population, every other Senate district — I’ll say that again, every other Senate district — has lost population," Collamore said.
So Mitch, the four counties that have gained population in the past decade, Chittenden County, Franklin, Lamoille, and Grand Isle, the other 10 have all lost population. That's the reality that Vermont is facing.
"The northwest part of Vermont has grown significantly in population, every other Senate district — I’ll say that again, every other Senate district — has lost population."
So how do these population trends then, Bob, play out in the Senate?
Mitch right now, Caledonia County has two senators, and under the new plan, one of these senators will be shifted over to Chittenden County and a new single-member district. Now that leaves Caledonia with one senator, but the incumbents won't have to face each other because one of them —Republican Joe Benning, who has served six terms in the Senate — is stepping down to run for lieutenant governor.
And Benning told me that he feels this population shift means that the rural parts of Vermont will have less of a voice in the Senate.
"Those issues that have been long-standing Vermont traditions have been somewhat muddied now as a result of the loss of that rural voice," Benning said.
But Mitch, not everybody agrees with this assessment. Chittenden [County] Sen. Chris Pearson is a member of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, and he has a different perspective on this issue:
"You're not likely to see a big shift in partisan makeup. And those senators representing more rural parts of our community are skilled and vocal. So I — I guess I don't buy the idea that rural Vermont is losing something," Pearson said.
I should also mention, Mitch, that the Essex-Orleans District, which currently has two senators, will be broken into two single-member districts, Essex and Orleans. And that's because the combined district would have had almost 50 towns in it. And it was considered to be much too big for senators to represent.
"You're not likely to see a big shift in partisan makeup. And those senators representing more rural parts of our community are skilled and vocal. So I — I guess I don't buy the idea that rural Vermont is losing something."
Well right now Chittenden County, with six state senators — and this is an amazing fact to me, Bob — is the largest senate district in the country. What are the changes that are taking place there?
Isn't that incredible, Mitch? No Senate district in the country has more than three members. None. And this is only true in four states. So, we have 46 states in this country that have single-member Senate districts. I think Vermont has kept the multi-member district approach because that's what the Vermont Constitution calls for.
Now, back in 2020, it was pretty clear that the six-member Chittenden District would not survive a possible court challenge. So, lawmakers voted to break it up. But they left the details to the Reapportionment Committee.
Now this panel has decided to create two three-member districts in Chittenden County. One is anchored in Burlington, the other includes many of the towns to the east and south of Burlington.
Sen. Pearson thinks these new, smaller districts will be good for voters. He also thinks the change will be good for senators, because the current district is way too big.
"That's 130,000 voters in the current Chittenden Senate District, for no staff. When people call me they get my cell phone. That is not a reasonable workload for a part-time citizen Legislature, in my opinion," Pearson said. "I'm hopeful that this will be a positive change."
In past years, the reapportionment process has been pretty controversial. In fact, in one case, it had to be settled by the Vermont Supreme Court. So, Bob, how did the process go this year?
Well, Mitch, for the most part, the work of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, and the House Government Operations Committee went pretty smoothly. Were there some disagreements? Absolutely, I mean, that's part of the process, but in the end both committees voted unanimously to support the new maps. So that's a strong tri-partisan vote for the new changes.
Now, one of the big areas of disagreement in the Senate involve the town of Stowe. Stowe geographically right now is in Lamoille County, and its political representation is in the Lamoille County Senate District.
As the Senate Reapportionment Committee members were struggling with how to add representation over to the northwestern part of the state, one of them suggested that many of their problems could be solved if Stowe was moved into the Washington County Senate District. They said this made sense because they felt Stowe has more in common with Waterbury, which is in Washington County, than perhaps Morrisville, which is in Lamoille County. But some folks in Stowe strongly objected to this change.
And in a moment of frustration, Essex-Orleans Sen. Bobby Starr, who is a member of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, said the fate of one community, namely Stowe, shouldn't jeopardize the creation of a very good statewide map.
"And I think that is pretty bad when there's 270-odd of us throughout the state. And this whole discussion has been caused by one community," Starr said.
In the end, Mitch, despite the complaints of some people in Stowe for political representation now, Stowe will be considered to be part of Washington County, and not the Lamoille County Senate District.
Well, we've been talking a lot about how reapportionment has had a big impact on the Senate. What about the House? How has it affected all of the House districts?
Well, it certainly had an impact there too, Mitch. We had that same general population shift towards the northwestern part of Vermont, so this part of the state will gain representation, probably between five and eight seats.
The other major change in the House is the decision to have more single-member districts. So, the new map will have 41 two-member districts and 68 single-member districts. That's a net gain of 10 single-member districts.
Now back in November, the original Legislative [A]pportionment Board recommended single-member districts for the entire House and the entire Senate. The Senate rejected that approach, citing the Vermont Constitution. And the House largely rejected this plan, because there are a number of towns that are represented by two-member districts, and the House felt it was wrong to break those districts up.
Now, I should tell you, Mitch, that because the reapportionment bill has been signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott, there is a very limited appeals process available to any town that wants to appeal what the Legislature has done. They can appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court. That has happened in the past, but the court is very reluctant to interfere with the legislative process, unless the complaint is based on big population deviation factors.
So, it's very unlikely that these maps will be changed for the next 10 years.
Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Bob Kinzel: