Note: In the original version of this post, I failed to include Ron Horton in the Essex-Orleans district. This post is now updated to include him.
The Vermont state Senate, our most self-absorbed deliberative body, is a study in stasis. Turnover is rare. Incumbents are virtually assured of re-election, usually without much effort. (The last sitting senators to lose were Bill Doyle and Norm McAllister in 2016 — but Doyle was 90 years old, quite frail and had a reputation for nodding off during meetings, and McAllister faced a daunting array of criminal charges at the time. That’s about what it takes for an incumbent to lose.
This year promises to be same song, new verse. A rough and semi-educated review of the field of candidates shows that 27 of the 30 senators are strong or prohibitive favorites to win re-election — and that includes one incumbent who didn’t bother filing his candidacy papers, and will have to run a write-in campaign. The forgetful fellow is NEK Democrat and snippy little bitch John Rodgers, who represents the two-seat Essex-Orleans district along with perpetual incumbent Bobby Starr, who did manage to file — along with “Democrat” Ron Horton, who ran this race under the banner of the American Party in 2018.
The American Party, FYI, is a fringe conservative organization that traces its roots back to the American Independent Party founded by hardcore segregationist George Wallace. Horton finished a distant third in 2018 behind Starr and Rodgers. He stands a puncher’s chance in this year’s primary because his name is on the ballot and Rodgers’ is not. But Rodgers’ cavailer attitude toward the simple act of filing papers (and this year he didn’t even need to gather signatures) precisely illustrates the problem: Senate incumbents are virtually bulletproof.
I said 27 of the 30 are favorites. The other three — Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram of Chittenden County and James McNeil of Rutland — are voluntarily giving up their seats. Indeed, voluntary retirement is just about the only way there’s ever any turnover in the Vermont Senate.
In my view (sorry, Bernie), there are three reasons for this. The first is Vermonters’ strong inclination to re-elect incumbents of all sorts, from our Congressional delegation on down the ballot. We’re not fixing that anytime soon, or ever. The second is Democratic domination in several districts. Dems account for six of the eight incumbents who managed to scare off any potential challengers. (The two Republicans: Randy Brock and Corey Parent of Franklin County.)
But the third issue is eminently fixable. Twenty-seven senators represent multi-seat districts, which are larger and more outsider-unfriendly than single-seat districts. Chittenden, with six seats in the state’s most expensive media market, is one of the biggest legislative districts in the country — and extremely difficult for a new candidate. Rutland, Washington and Windsor counties have three senators each. Addison, Bennington, Caledonia, Essex-Orleans, Franklin and Windham have two each.
The Legislature has already passed a bill that will break up Chittenden into at least two districts in 2022, when all districts will be reapportioned based on the 2020 Census. But let’s face it, two three-seat districts is only a marginal improvement on one gigantic six-seater. And I’ll bet you a shiny S.B. Anthony dollar that the Senate will draw the boundaries with an eye toward incumbent protection.
(Yes, the foxes guard the redistricting henhouse. Vermont is largely free of the bane of gerrymandering, but lawmakers do tend to protect their own when it comes to drawing new lines.)
The House is somewhat better in this regard, but it does contain quite a lot of two-member districts.
The best thing for competition’s (a.k.a. democracy’s) sake would be an end to multi-member districts. This would require an astonishing degree of selflessness on the part of sitting lawmakers, but it’s still a good idea. It would also require abandoning the pretense that our legislative districts conform to town and county boundaries — which may have been true at some time in the past, but is largely a fantasy nowadays because lines must be adjusted every ten years to account for population shifts. This is especially true of Senate districts.
(I’m sure someone in the crowd is waving their arm desperately, hoping to point out that three of our crustiest Senators — Dick Mazza, Richard Westman and Mark MacDonald — all represent single-seat districts. Yes, sure, fine. But the incumbency advantage of multi-member districts is a real phenomenon.
Well, it’s all just academic symposium-style speculation, because the odds of the Legislature doing something novel with redistricting are vanishingly close to zero. I’m sure there will be plenty of tinkering and jiggering, while keeping things as close to status quo as possible. Heck, the new Chittenden mandate is radical by Vermont legislative standards.
But looking at that list of 27 safe incumbents out of 30 is just depressing. Sometimes you have to think outside the box, even if you have to live out your miserable life inside.
Thank you for this thoughtful article advocating single-seat districts. Totally agree.
Wider context: Nationally, less than 15% of all state legislative seats are in multi-member districts, and that number is about to get lower as West Virginia goes to entirely single-member districts after the 2020 census. There are many arguments against multi-member districts, and very few in favor. Those wanting to learn more might start with this Ballotpedia entry on the topic: https://ballotpedia.org/State_legislative_chambers_that_use_multi-member_districts
Ranked choice voting will help to encourage more candidates to emerge and give voters a choice. Works for both strong D or P districts as well as in strong R or Libertarian districts.