The following is an opinion editorial by the Vermont Legislative Apportionment Board for which the Secretary of State’s office provides administrative support.
It’s that time of the decade again!
The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years, and this up-to-date population count is used to ensure that our elected representatives in the legislature are equitably apportioned across the state. (Because Vermont has a single member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the is no decennial reapportionment there.)
Vermont law mandates reapportionment of our House and Senate districts “… to achieve substantially equal weighting of the votes of all voters in the choice of legislators.” “Equal weighting” means that all legislative districts that have the same number of members should have substantially the same number of residents. So, all single-member House districts should have around 4,200 people, double that for a two-member district. There is a similar requirement for Senate districts.
During the intervening decade from one Census to the next, population shifts occur, more pronounced in some areas of the state than in others. Using the 2020 Census figures for Vermont, the job of developing new statewide legislative districting plans that account for these population shifts initially falls to the Legislative Apportionment Board, a tripartisan group of seven citizens. The Board then makes its recommendations to the legislature, which will have the final say on the new map before it goes into effect for the 2022 election cycle. Our work is being challenged by the delayed release of the final U.S. Census figures.
Reapportionment in Vermont has worked this way since the mid-1960s. Prior to then, Vermont’s House and Senate districts were dramatically different—in fact, until 1836 the state had only a House of Representatives (no Senate) to which each town sent one representative. The inequities of this arrangement were not lost on the larger towns, and in 1836 Vermont’s 30-member Senate was created—with county-based districts and representation more directly connected to population– a partial solution.
By 1960, the 246-member House was perhaps the most disparately apportioned legislative body in the nation. For example, the smallest town at the time—Stratton—had 38 residents, while the largest—Burlington—had 35,351, yet they each had one representative in the House! A majority of the House members represented towns that together accounted for just 11.8% of the state’s population.
The transition to the population-based house and senate districts we have today is a direct result of landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that for the first-time extended equal-protection principles from the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to state legislative districts. These decisions (and decisions of the federal trial court in Vermont) led directly to the 1965 reapportionment of Vermont’s House and Senate districts, and the establishment of the Legislative Apportionment Board.
While reapportionment largely focuses on population, Vermont law contemplates districts that conform to existing municipal and county boundary lines. There are additional statutory requirements as well, such as geographic compactness and contiguity. Taken together, there are many factors to balance.
We want this to be the beginning of a continuing statewide dialogue, and will follow up with posts on specific issues and topics. You can learn more about the Board and the apportionment process on the Board’s website (https://sos.vermont.gov/apportionment-board/), and find meeting schedules and Zoom links to watch our meetings in real time or in recorded version. You can contribute comments and share ideas during meetings, or by email to members of the Board (email addresses are on the website).
The Legislative Apportionment Board
Thomas A. Little, Chair, Shelburne
Edward Adrian, Burlington
Jeanne Albert, Lincoln
Jeremy Hansen, Berlin
Mary Houghton, Putney
Thomas Koch, Barre
Robert Roper, Stowe