By John McClaughry
Next January the General Assembly will address its decennial responsibility for redistricting both houses of the Legislature. The first step in that process is receiving the recommendations of the Legislative Apportionment Board, which has been at work for several months.
That board will — again — recommend a very important change in how representatives are elected. It proposes to establish single-member House districts. Fifty-eight representatives are presently elected from single-member districts; 92 are elected from 46 two-member districts.
The change is championed by an odd-fellow combination of a former state Republican chair, Rob Roper, and a former Progressive House candidate, Jeremy Hansen. Curiously, the left-wing Vermont Public Interest Research Group, chronically doing battle with Roper’s conservative Ethan Allen Institute, spoke in support of the single-member House district plan during board testimony.
All districts, in accordance with the one-person-one-vote principle, are required to have a population within plus or minus 10 percent of the state average. What would be gained by going to single member House districts?
For one thing, multimember districts have been used elsewhere to prevent a minority — such as black voters in the South — from ever having the opportunity to elect their own candidate in a multimember district designed (by whites) to favor whites. There’s no evidence of this ever being done in Vermont.
Arguments for single-member districts are often made on the basis of “equity,” “fairness” and “common sense.” These tend to be vague and debatable concepts. There is, however, one powerful argument for single-member districts: accountability. Citizens have a constitutional right to hold their representatives accountable. They can’t effectively do this in a multimember district.
The curse of multimember districts is that only rarely will any candidate do battle with any other candidate.
A one-on-one contest gives voters a clear opportunity to hold incumbents accountable. It’s “Reelect Smith!” vs. “Dump Smith, Elect Jones.” Challenger Jones will naturally focus his or her campaign on Smith’s performance, voting record, laziness, falsehoods, and so on. The voters choose.
But in a two-member district, challenger Jones is tempted to avoid attacking Smith’s performance, because Jones might be able to get enough second votes from voters who like Smith to put them both into office, at the expense of the other candidates. By the same thinking, incumbent Smith will keep mum about Jones’ inadequate experience, probity and wrong ideas, so as not to lose possible second votes from Jones backers. This makes for appallingly issue-free elections.
This may seem confusing to people who haven’t been involved in campaigns in multimember districts, but it certainly happens. The voters get four (or more) candidates touting their own merits, but assiduously avoiding doing battle over the incumbents’ performance.
Having a motivated challenger in a single-member district doesn’t allow an incumbent to squirm out of being accountable for his or her record. That’s why incumbents usually favor insipid name recognition and popularity contests among a bunch of lesser known challengers.
Every reform aimed at increasing elected officials’ accountability to the voters, the essence of democracy, soon runs head on into a huge obstacle: incumbents. It will happen again. Incumbents will petition their party leaders — of both parties — to scrap the board’s single-member district recommendation, to maximize their chances of worry-free reelection.
When this happens, as it always has, there’s still a constructive fallback position: Elect the district’s two members in separate positions — say St. Johnsbury-1 and St. Johnsbury-2. That would force two one-on-one races, instead of one two-on-two race. That would keep some multimember districts, but eliminate candidate jockeying in them to attract second votes, and still make each incumbent accountable.
The board has yet to approve a Senate redistricting plan. According to the Constitution, Senate districts can have any number of senators — 27 of the 30 senators in Vermont are now elected from multimember districts. Ideally, each single-member Senate district would include five single-member House districts.
Unfortunately the Vermont Constitution requires that those districts “adhere to boundaries of counties.” That totally nonsensical requirement was slipped into the Constitution in 1974 by a senator who thought his chances for staying in office were better in a three-on-three member district. Electing senators one-on-one in designated positions within a multimember district would be a marked improvement.
Assuring legislators’ accountability to the people is a fundamental principle of our republican form of government. It far outweighs the urge of incumbents to protect their own political fortunes.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.