Roper: Why all single-member legislative districts?

By Rob Roper

This year, the tri-partisan Legislative Apportionment Board (LAB) recommended that the Vermont legislature re-draw House and Senate district boundaries (we do this every 10 years following the census) so that there would be 150 single-member House districts and 30 single-member Senate districts. This would be a change from Vermont’s current mishmash of one- and two-member House districts and one-, two-, three- and six-member Senate districts.

Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

There are many good reasons for scrapping our anachronistic multimember districts, including popular support for single-member districts, eliminating a flagrant gerrymandering tool, and ensuring fairness and equality of representation for all.

Fair and equal representation

It should be obvious that citizens who get to vote for and are represented by two or more legislators in one or both chambers of the Legislature have a very different experience than those who have just one. I live in Stowe/Lamoille County so have one representative in the House and one in the Senate who I can vote for and call on for help or to raise concerns. My friend who lives a few miles down the road in Waterbury/Washington County has two and three respectively. This is not equality of representation.

Perhaps ironically, the towns that argued for keeping their multimember districts during the map-drawing process made the strongest cases for why they should not be allowed to. Barre Town, for example, argued, “Residents have benefited by having two town-wide representatives in the Legislature. Each representative may have unique knowledge and skills that can enhance their ability to better serve the interests of individual community members. Two representatives are likely to have different personalities and communication skills, affording residents options for dialogue and discussion.”

Exactly. And these are benefits not enjoyed equally by citizens living in single-member districts. So, clearly this is not fair, equitable or just.

Gerrymandering

Back in the 1950s, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 37 states utilized multimember legislative districts. Today just nine do, and Vermont is the only one that has them for both chambers of the Legislature. Why have states been getting rid of them (West Virginia being the latest just this year)? Because multimember districts are a gerrymandering tool, plain and simple, with an ugly racial history thrown into the bargain.

Leaders of the Vermont Racial Equity Task Force testified before the LAB regarding their January 2020 report which said, “Extensive political research and case law have demonstrated that in most of the U.S., states and localities have taken increasingly flagrant tactics designed to suppress and dilute the votes of communities of color. One such tactic is the use of multi-member districts.”

One would think for a Legislature so rhetorically dedicated to racial justice and eliminating institutional, systemic racism, getting rid of multimember districts would be a no-brainer both symbolically and substantively, but apparently not!

Of course, the same gerrymandering tactics used against Blacks during Jim Crow can be used against any population — rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal, etc.

To this point, the Manchester Board of Civil Authority nobly noted that, “While we have seen the benefit of having two representatives from Manchester in the former Benn-4 district, we support fair representation throughout Vermont’s various towns.” Manchester, being the population center of a four-town/two-member house district, sends two representatives to Montpelier while the other three towns in the district send none. These situations — and there are several — are again not fair, equitable or just.

Popular cross-party support

The Legislative Apportionment Board conducted a detailed statewide survey asking Vermonters what they wanted in a new legislative map. Over 630 people responded; 75% said they preferred single member districts, and 65% said they wanted only single member districts.

The LAB majority that voted out the all-single-member district maps was made up of a Democrat, a Progressive and two Republicans, and moving to all-single-member districts is the one time in history where the Ethan Allen Institute and VPIRG agree on what is good public policy. That is as big and ideologically diverse a coalition as you are going to find!

But, despite all this, our sitting legislators in the House voted 32-90 to drop the all-single-member district map in favor of another hybrid, single and multimember district map from the LAB’s minority report. Which gets us to one last ugly aspect of multi-member districts.

Incumbent protection

As Tom Hughes of VPIRG noted in his testimony before the LAB, “We believe [single-member districts] will afford more accountability and competitiveness in elections.” And that, sadly, seems to be the last thing most of our elected officials want in our elections system. But you know what? Hold them accountable anyway!

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He is a member of the Legislative Apportionment Board.

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