Elections

Election Issues

Gotta Draw the Line Somewhere

June 8, 2011, Seven Days, Shay Totten

An emerging political alliance between Republicans and Progressives is making the wonky work of the Legislative Apportionment Board — the panel charged with redrawing the state’s House and Senate districts — one of the most-watched efforts in Montpelier. Democrats are so worried that House Speaker Shap Smith is raising concerns about “political chicanery.”

Every 10 years, state law mandates that legislative districts undergo analysis based on the U.S. Census data. Some districts shrink and others expand as the population shifts. A new map must be approved before the end of the next legislative session in order to be in effect for the 2012 fall elections.

The panel came together last November. Each of Vermont’s three political parties appointed someone; Gov. Jim Douglas did the same, selecting a panelist from each camp. Chief Justice Paul Reiber chose the chair, or “special master.” The result? Two Democrats, two Republicans, two Progressives and a former GOP lawmaker are tasked with balancing voter representation among 150 House reps and 30 Senate members. That works out to 4172 voters per rep; 20,858 per senator.

Progressives Meg Brook and Steve Hingtgen, along with Republicans Neale Lunderville and Rob Roper, are increasingly supportive of a plan to reduce the number of two-member House districts from 42 to six. They want to increase the number of one-person House districts from 66 to 138.

A competing plan that will be unveiled at the board’s meeting this Thursday has the support of the panel’s two Democrats — Frank Cioffi and Gerry Gossens — and Chairman Tom Little would leave existing district lines mostly intact, with slight tweaks where the population has shifted significantly. Previous reapportionment boards have taken the same approach.

You could argue that the results have benefited Democrats, who now hold a “super majority” in the House and Senate. Last time around, reapportionment cost the Burlington Progressives two House seats. Republicans went from having a majority in the House to a 47-member minority.

Is this political payback?

“I approached this from the perspective of electoral reform. I believe single-seat districts are inherently better. They are more intimate between voters and representatives,” said Hingtgen, a former Burlington rep who ran for lieutenant governor. “They are also less expensive to campaign in, thereby leveling the playing field between candidates.”

As a former Republican Party chairman, Roper concurs. In fact, he’d like to see 150 single-member districts. “It should ideally be one person, one vote, one rep,” said Roper. “It also makes it easier for people to run and draw a contrast when there is just one candidate.”

But if it breaks towns apart and pits incumbents against one another, the House’s top Democrat is opposed.

“I really don’t want to see a plan that comes to the legislature and is immediately shunted aside as a fantasy project,” said Speaker Smith. His Morristown House seat could be merged with neighboring Johnson — a move Smith opposes.

In other locales, incumbents could wind up running against a fellow rep if the single-member-district plan prevails. Those include Democratic Reps. Lucy Leriche and Peter Peltz in Hardwick and Woodbury; Democratic Reps. Jason Lorber and Rachel Weston in Burlington; and GOP Reps. Don Turner and Ron Hubert in Milton.

“I would have no problem declaring something dead on arrival if there is evidence of political chicanery,” Smith said.

Hingtgen said he has purposely ignored incumbent issues as the single-member-district map has evolved.

“We shouldn’t really be thinking about incumbents, but the voters,” he said.

Gossens told “Fair Game” he believes supporters of single-member districts are playing politics with the map, especially since the message is clear that lawmakers prefer the status quo.

“If they are doing it just to embarrass the legislature, then I don’t know why we’re putting in all of this time and effort,” said Gossens. “I’m not hearing a great outcry from voters that the current system is unfair, so I think we have to be careful of being paternalistic and trying to protect the voters from themselves.”

Lunderville said the board shouldn’t shy away from making changes just because other players in the process don’t like it.

“I was interested in taking a fresh look at the map, especially given that the last map was developed 10 years ago, and that was based largely on the map from 10 years before, and so on dating back to the original map,” said Lunderville. A final proposed map must be delivered to the legislature by August 1.

Little, who drove around the state to get a personal feel for each legislative district, warned the panel’s members might not reach consensus.

“If we can’t agree on one plan,” Little noted, “then ultimately we’ll take some votes and see where the chips fall.”

The panel must settle on one of them by July 1 so local boards of civil authority can have a chance to weigh in.

Progressives on the Panel

Progressives can thank Democrat Gaye Symington and current State Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D/W-Washington) for their seats at the reapportionment table.

Symington’s third-place gubernatorial finish in 2008 forced lawmakers to rewrite the law governing the composition of the reapportionment board. Before 2008, the board only included members of “major parties” whose gubernatorial candidates received at least 25 percent of the vote in the election preceding the decennial census.

In 2008 Symington earned only 21.7 percent of the vote, a hair behind Pollina, an independent at the time, who finished with 21.8 percent. Only Republican Jim Douglas earned more than 25 percent of the vote — 53.4 percent, to be exact.

Due to Symington’s poor showing, the Democrat-led legislature changed the law so Dems wouldn’t be left out of the reapportionment process. They changed the criterion from gubernatorial percentages to party presence in the legislature.

Now a party gets a seat at the reapportionment table if it has at least three lawmakers serving from different counties, in three out of the five sessions following the most recent census.

Yes, Virginia, elections do have consequences.

Battle of the Bulge

House redistricting is contentious, but the panel has yet to tackle the equally challenging Senate map. Chittenden County’s population has grown almost enough to warrant a seventh senator.

To avoid adding a senator, or splitting the county into smaller districts, one or more towns may be given to neighboring counties.

The board has discussed moving Hinesburg or Charlotte to Addison County’s senate district. That might pose a problem, since incumbent Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) lives in Hinesburg. Another idea is to add Milton to the current Chittenden-Grand Isle Senate district, which is all of Grand Isle County and Colchester. With Milton, the district could qualify for two senators, up from its current one: Sen. Richard Mazza, a Democrat.

Which county is likely to lose a senator?

Odds are it would be Rutland, which is losing population and soon might not have enough people to justify its current stable of three senators.

Apportionment Board Heats Up

Excellent article this week in the Freep laying out the issues being tackled by group looking at redrawing house and senate districts based on the new census data.

Prog Meg Brook is pushing for single-seat house districts throughout the state. She argues (correctly) for them on democracy grounds--better access to candidates, better minority representation, and stronger ties to elected officials. The rest of the board save one Democrat have seen at least some value in pushing forward with a single-seat plan.

There are other reasons to push for single-seat districts which the apportionment board is not (and probably should not) consider--three major benefits to candidates and political parties. They are:

    More grassroots campaigning. The fewer voters a candidate needs to reach, the less effective big money campaign tactics become (think TV ads and robocalls), and the more voters expect a candidate to engage them. We pride ourselves on "voting for the person," but learn nothing of the person unless we meet them at our door or on the street.

    No "sponge" candidates. A party with one strong candidate in a two-seat district has to run a second candidate to prevent their party supporters from helping other candidates with their second votes. You end up with someone running who has no intention to serve, and the voters may not know this.

    No interparty contests. In two-seat districts with incumbents from different parties, the weaker incumbent has no reason to support a second candidate from their party. In fact those two candidates from the same party are essentially running against each other for that second seat, rather than running as a ticket.

The Apportionment Board should move forward with single-seat districts because it is good for democracy. The legislature should pass a single-seat redistricting plan because it is in their partisan self-interest.

Vermont House redistricting puzzle takes shape

June 6, 2011, Burlington Free Press, Nancy Remsen

Bolton Town Clerk Deb LaRiviere wasn't surprised to learn that her community could find itself in a new legislative district because the U.S. Census showed too many people now live in the two-seat House district made up of Bolton, Jericho and Underhill.

The district would exceed the 2010 standard for a two-member district by 10.3 percent. The ideal size for a district electing one member to the Vermont House of Representatives is 4,172 people, and 8,344 for a two-member district. The new population tally for Bolton, Jericho and Underhill is 9,207 -- 860 over the standard.

"We knew this was going to happen," LaRiviere said.

What has town election officials like LaRiviere on edge is the uncertainty about how the Legislative Apportionment Board and ultimately the Legislature will redraw the House district map to eliminate double-digit deviations such as that for the Bolton, Jericho, Underhill district. The apportionment board is charged with suggesting House and Senate redistricting proposals to the Legislature.

One draft map of new House districts that the apportionment board has considered shows Bolton in a single-member district with Huntington and a portion of Waterbury.

LaRiviere said it was too soon to react. At least, she said, the proposal didn't split the town. A decade ago, lawmakers considered putting West Bolton with Jericho and Underhill and the rest of the town with Waterbury.

The apportionment board must complete a preliminary proposal for all House districts by July 1 so local boards of civil authority have a month to review and comment before the apportionment panel decides on a final plan.

With July 1 fast approaching, the seven-member panel has yet to settle on a strategy for drawing its preliminary map. Two competing strategies are in play.

Gerry Gossens, a Democrat from Salisbury, favors the "practical" approach, which he says means starting with the existing House districts. "I think our job is to look at where the problems are and fix them."

Meg Brook, a Progressive from South Burlington, says the board should shoot for ideal districts, which she argues are blocks of roughly 4,172 voters who would elect a single member of the House. "I fundamentally believe single districts allow for a more accessible democratic process."

Brook and Steve Hingtgen, a Progressive from Montpelier, sketched out single-member House districts across the state and the board has been working from this map for several weeks.

"The reason the single-seat plan has moved forward is that it has gained support," Hingtgen said.

"It is a worthwhile exercise," Rob Roper, a Republican from Stowe, said. As former chairman of the Vermont Republican Party charged with trying to recruit candidates for House races, Roper said he found two-member districts challenging. People hesitated to challenge sitting representatives, he said. "There is a weird incumbent protection dynamic."

Neale Lunderville, a Republican from South Burlington, also supports exploring the single-member plan. "It give us the opportunity to look at all of the districts with new eyes," he said. "We shouldn't be bound to change as little as possible."

Frank Cioffi, a Democrat from St. Albans, called the single-district map "an interesting academic exercise, but I don't think it will sit well with the boards of civil authority or the House of Representatives."

"I'm not hearing a groundswell from Vermonters that they are dissatisfied with the current configuration of legislative districts," Cioffi said. He added, "I would like to see us deliver something the House would appreciate, that has a chance of being accepted."

Hingtgen said before he makes up his mind, he wants to compare the single district configuration with a map making minimal changes to existing districts. Gossens is trying to develop that map for the board's meeting this week.

Tom Little, a Republican from Shelburne who serves as special master or chairman of the board, returns from an out-of-state trip this week to try to lead the divided panel toward consensus in the coming weeks.

The draft map of single-member House districts would mean big changes for many voters and little change for others.

The Essex, Essex Junction and Williston House districts, for example, would each be divided in half since they are currently two member districts.

Burlington has long been a mix of single and double-member districts, so creating nine or 10 single districts would likely mean a whole new configuration.

Milton would be split in thirds. Town Clerk John Cushing sees extra costs for three sets of ballots and worries about voter confusion over new, arbitrary districts lines. He questions the need to change the town's two-member district. "If it worked for 10 years, why wouldn't it work for another 10 years?"

By contrast, South Burlington has long had single-member districts within its borders, so the only line changes would come as a result of population spurts.

Gossens argues that mandating single-member districts would divide towns that are comfortable with two-seat configuration. "Don't chop up districts for the sake of chopping them up," he told his colleagues on the board last week.

Brook counters that many larger communities, such as her city of South Burlington, are split into multiple House districts. If it works in these towns, she asks why not work toward creating single-member districts statewide?

"What is the value of a two-seat district?" Hingtgen asks. "I see it as having problems." He cited the less intimate relationship between residents and their representatives. He noted, too, "when you have a larger district, minority voices become less valuable. The smaller the district, the strong the voice of the minority."

Board members may be struggling to agree on the basis to begin mapping House districts, but they agree that whatever approach they choose will hit snags.

Mountains, governmental boundaries, orientation of commerce and lack of transportation links all pose challenges to creating mathematically precise districts.

"I had no idea of the complexity of this when I started," Gossens said.

Vermont law says, "The representative and senate districts shall be formed consistent with the following policies insofar as practicable:

• Preservation of existing political subdivision lines.

• Recognition and maintenance of patterns of geography, social interaction, trade, political ties and community of interest.

• Use of compact and contiguous territory.

Missing from the list that guides the board's work is incumbency. The panel has discussed, but not examined how the single-district map would impact incumbent legislators. They seem to agree that their work won't be guided by where sitting legislators live.

"The boards of civil authority can consider incumbency," Roper said. "The Legislature can and will. We can, but we don't have to. Maybe we shouldn't. We should come up with the most equitable plan under every other criteria."

Draft apportionment map for Vermont voting districts under review this week

June 5, 2011, vt Digger, Eli Sherman

It’s that time of the decade again. Vermont’s political boundaries for House representatives and Senate members are being redrawn to match new demographic information from the U.S. Census.

The process is known as apportionment. District lines for members of the General Assembly are subject to new interpretation, based on shifts in population. Areas of Vermont that have a growing number of residents, such as Burlington or towns in the Upper Valley, could gain more seats, while those municipalities with fewer Vermont residents, such as Greensboro, could see a drop in the number of House and Senate seats representing.

Members of the Apportionment Board will convene Thursday and a second map will be presented that changes district lines.

Every 10 years following the Census Bureau report, every state in the country is given an opportunity to reassess district lines for state representatives and senators. The district lines are split up according to population size. The denser the populous is, the smaller the district size will range geographically. The one exception to this is if a district has a two-member district, in which the populous is doubled.

The process of developing a mapping system that reflects fair representation of the districts is no small political feat. The Vermont Apportionment Board is made up of two members from each of the three major parties – the GOP, Democrats and the Progressive Party. Once they come to consensus on a map, it will be sent to the towns for approval. The map’s final destination is the Vermont Legislature, which is dominated by Democrats who will have the final say.

Although the board is in charge of readjusting both the House and the Senate district, the main focus currently is creating district lines for the house. After the census numbers are released, the state is responsible for analyzing how populations have shifted and how many citizens will be represented in a given district. For the House, the “ideal number” is 4,172 residents to every one house representative. For the Senate, it’s exactly five times that number.

Each district is given a positive or negative percentage based on whether it exceeds or falls short of the ideal number. The number that swings between the state’s highest and lowest percent of every district is the deviation. According to population figures from the Secretary of State’s office, Vermont’s deviation is currently 45 percent. Tom Little, the chairman of the board, said that percentage should ideally be in the teens, and he attributes the high number to population flux throughout the state.

“Population shifts that Vermont has seen in the last 30 to 40 years are still happening,” Little said.

Most of the population growth over the course of the last few decades has been in Chittenden County.

Because there is an obvious need for reapportionment to satisfy these standards, the board is taking two different ways: One methodology is to tweak the district lines just enough to meet the standards; the other is to break the districts down into more districts with single House representatives so there would be a more representation in government.

According to Megan Brook, one of the six members of the board, the positive impact that smaller districts would have would be more diversity in government which would then, in turn, improve the democratic process in Vermont. Brook also suggested that if candidates were responsible for a smaller amount of constituents, more people might try to run for a legislative position.

“It’s easier to find candidates to run when the task seems less daunting,” Brook said.

Steve Hintgen, a fellow member, agrees with Brook and advocates that smaller districting would make life easier for Vermonters as there would be easier access to representatives, a direct accountability and smaller relationships between the voters and the lawmakers.

“In a two seat district, you (candidates) spend a lot of the summer going from door to door,” Hintgen said.

Hintgen also says that because some two-member districts might have one big town surrounded by many smaller towns, candidates from the larger towns are more likely to be elected, which then makes it easier for incumbent candidates to stay in office.

Eric Davis, a retired political science professor from Middlebury College, is strongly in favor of keeping two-person districts because he believes breaking them into single-member districts would create an artificial divide in towns. (Brook said they were determined to keep towns whole while redistricting.)

“Local officials in almost all of those towns prefer to keep it a two-member,” Davis said.

Davis also suggests that the whole process is an “academic exercise” as the boards partisanship does not represent the current legislature body and as soon as the proposal gets to the house, divisions that end up breaking up incumbent lawmakers will be changed back, even though both the board and the lawmakers are supposed to ignore influence of partisanship, according to the reapportionment statute.

“I think the House is going to do what they want to do. I want to give them an alternative proposal,” Brook said, adding that if the House were to make changes they would need to justify them for the good of the state, not for their party.

After the board agrees on map of redistricting, to be finished by July 1, they are to send it to the Board of Civil Authority all over the state so that towns can put their two cents into what they think about the changes made. The BCAs are to send the proposals back to the Reapportionment board for redesign. By August 15, the board will submit their final proposal to the House of Representatives to begin the legislative process.

An act relating to the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote (H.103)

Mollie Burke, Susan Hatch Davis, Sarah Edwards, and Sandy Haas sponsored H.103, An act relating to the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.

This bill proposes to adopt the agreement among the states to elect the president by national popular vote.

An act relating to the agreement among the states to elect the president by national popular vote (S.31)

Tim Ashe and Anthony Pollina sponsored S.31, An act relating to the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.

This bill proposes to join other states in a compact to elect the president by national popular vote.

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