McClaughry: Single-member districts will strengthen democracy

By John McClaughry

Kudos to the Vermont Senate for passing a bill requiring that Senate districts “shall have a maximum of three members.” Interestingly, two of the three sponsors of S.11 (Sens. Tim Ashe and Michael Sirotkin) are elected from the Chittenden District, the only district with more than three members.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

The main reason Vermont has one six-member Senate district, three three-member districts, six two-member districts, and three single-member districts is historical. Because of dissatisfaction with the performance of the one-town, one-vote House, and growing population disparities between Burlington and tiny towns like Baltimore and Stannard, the voters in 1836 adopted a constitutional amendment creating a Senate. It was viewed as a body representing counties, although Vermont counties were little more than judicial districts. After the courts ordered one person, one vote redistricting in the 1960s, the Vermont Constitution was again amended in 1974 to provide for Senate districts roughly equal in population.

Ever since, the decennial redistricting of the Senate has posed unavoidable problems, largely because of shifting populations. The state constitution now says the districts must “adhere to boundaries of counties and other existing political subdivisions.” There are now 13 Senate districts for electing 30 senators from 14 counties. Rather than do the sensible thing — forget about largely fictitious counties and elect one senator from each five contiguous equal-population House districts — the Legislature has resorted to all sorts of awkward improvisations.

The most glaring is the six-member Chittenden District (minus Colchester, tacked on to Grand Isle). Since the six senators are elected at-large, it’s almost certain they will all be Democrats, and conceivably all from Burlington itself. The Senate bill would, most likely, result in three Democratic/Progressive senators from that Burlington core, and the other three — including possibly a Republican or two — from the “outer ring” district.

Even the operations director of the Democratic Party was quoted in Seven Days as observing, rightly, that “Vermont is very vulnerable to a legal challenge. The argument is, that a vote in one district counts more than a vote in another.”

That’s true, and a legal challenge could produce bizarre results. One egregious example emerged from a deadlocked redistricting battle in Illinois in 1964. A federal court mandated the notorious “bedsheet ballot.” Voters were handed a 33-inch long paper ballot and asked to choose 177 House members at large from 236 listed candidates.

Aside from arguments based on inequalities in voting power, there is another subtle but important argument against any multimember district, House or Senate. Those districts let incumbent protection defeat voter choice.

Consider this in the three-member district. Senators A, B, and C are running for reelection against D, E, and F. Now suppose Senator A is extremely controversial for his or her views and votes on a hot issue in the district. Challenger D is highly motivated to oust A. But D is aware that many of A’s likely voters, who each have three votes, might also cast one of their three votes for D for other reasons, such as geography, name recognition, gender, party and qualifications.

D realizes that his attack on A would alienate A’s supporters. They would vote for A and two others — either incumbents or challengers — who steered clear of challenging any of their fellow candidates. D figures that his chances of winning will be lower — possibly fatally lower — if he attacks A. So D joins E and F in avoiding criticism of any of the incumbents’ votes or misdeeds.

Bottom line: Instead of an election giving the voters a choice to hold an incumbent accountable for his or her performance, the multimember district gives a strong incentive to all candidates to avoid any head-to-head challenge. If you wonder why we do this, bear in mind that every districting plan was designed by and approved by incumbents.

By contrast, there are three single-member Senate districts: Orange, Grand Isle and Lamoille. If voters in those districts disapprove of their one senator, they can vote to replace him or her with a challenger. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work.

If an incumbent senator really believes in democracy, he or she should summon the courage to put his or her own record before the voters, and defend it in debate with a contrary-minded challenger.

By all means get rid of the six-member district. Then get rid of the three- and two-member districts as well, in both Senate and House. Or, at the very least, make candidates in multimember districts file and run for “Position 1” or “Position 2,” which would give the voters the same clear choice.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Kelvinhu and John McClaughry

8 thoughts on “McClaughry: Single-member districts will strengthen democracy

  1. It should not be by population at all, that is what the house is for. If the senate is run by population amounts, we are becoming a Democracy, which is not good. We are a constitutional republic, not mob rule.

    If anything 1 per county or 2 per county, kind of like the US Senate.

    This would give Vermont Balance, this would give counties some authority to prevent Burlington and others from sucking money out of the country side. The latest tax per lot to pay for municipal sewer systems after all of us in the country had to pay for our own systems and upgrades out of our own pockets, we shouldn’t have to pay for others

  2. Being from an unknown, unrecognized corner of Chittenden County – We in Underhill have zero representation in Vt Senate – Nothing – we never see them – they don’t write. Local Rep’s do communicate (somewhat reluctantly) – because they have to represent us.
    My fear is that they will stick to two 3 member districts. They can divide the big cities among the two districts, which will still overwhelm any of the rural towns tagged on, north, east and south . The rich and the cities still win. Westford, Underhill, Jericho, Essex, Essex Jct, Richmond, Williston Charlotte, (count Shelburne as extension of S. Burl.) will still not be represented in Vt Senate.
    John’s idea of 6 individual districts gives the rural parts of Chitt. Co a good chance for representation and recognition..

    • Contact by county representatives in VT seems to be a universal problem. In Windham I don’t hear from ANY Senator or Representative. Once a “commoner” then get elected they become an elite and don’t have to answer to anyone. The elected need to be held accountable-or out. Why use taxpayer salaries on the wasted jerks.

      I hope a universal change comes. These reps should also hold polls to see how their Reps are to vote, not just “because it feels good” for them. Make it more “for the people”.

  3. I’ve been yelling about this for a few years and wrote and commented on this. Sen Benning introduced a bill S11. VT needs to follow the US, 2 Senators per state. Why 3 in a county in VT? KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) and make it more equal. Libs flock to one area to control the state, as noted. Two Senators will dilute the Lib agenda making for equality. Most of the Chittenden County are power brokers being Committee Chairpersons with dictatorial powers. Curtail the MontLibs. The mentality of Baruth is one example.

    Also reduce Chittenden county Reps, 24 by 2/3. Next highest is Rutland with 12, make it 6. This also reduces being taxpayer paid a savings. No one will miss those voted out for a reduction. Perhaps Pugh, Johnson, (mustache) LaLonde and others of similar mentality.

    Chittenden County doesn’t need to control VT as has been policy.

  4. John, you omitted Huntington from your Chittenden County district discussion. Huntington is tacked on to Addison County for Senate representation and Washington County for House representation.

    A federal lawsuit appears to be the only way to achieve equal representation in Vermont. Sad.

  5. This is great and similar to what I’ve been saying for a while. We should adopt a system similar to the electoral collage to even the playing field. The urban cities control what happens in this State due to their increased representatives which is not fair to the rural towns.

  6. John,
    Yours is a well written and enlightening article.
    I had no idea regarding these arcane details, and Dem/Progs are not about to go public to enlighten the lay public.
    They likely think, let sleeping dogs lie, an informed citizenry likely is a danger to our incumbency!

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