Son Of Hey, Let’s Have Some Fun With the Chittenden Senate District!

After I wrote my post about the Chittenden Senate district, I found out that Sen. Kesha Ram has decamped to the suburbs. Specifically, the tony confines of Shelburne. Her Legislative bio still says “Burlington,” but oh well.

This dramatically changes the calculus for reapportionment, or at least my version of it. Rather than try to amend the original post, I decided to start afresh here.

For those just joining us, Vermont is preparing the once-a-decade task of redrawing legislative districts to reflect population changes. The Legislative Apportionment Board will draw up a proposal in time for the House and Senate to approve it or make changes during the 2022 session.

Thanks to a 2019 law, districts cannot include more than three House or Senate seats. This will mean dismembering the six-seat Chittenden district, which is a good thing. Multi-member districts are basically incumbent-protection schemes.

Because Chittenden County is growing while many other areas are shrinking, the district will get at least one more seat and possibly two. (By sheer population, it warrants 7 1/2.)

Adding a Chittenden seat means taking one away somewhere else, so let’s assume the new district will have seven seats, not eight. That means shifting one sizeable community out of the district. Colchester is currently in the Grand Isle district, and it’s likely to stay there in order to protect eternal incumbent Dick Mazza.

But for purposes of this thought experiment, I’m going to focus entirely on Chittenden County and try to describe districts that would be as even as possible population-wise, and keep communities intact whenever possible. On my map, no district would have more than two seats — and the lines could easily be drawn so that each district would have a single senator.

By population, Burlington should get two seats. Sen. Ram’s move to Shelburne makes it much less painful to make the city a two-seat district or divide it in half. If she still lived in Burlington, the city would contain three incumbents (Ram, Phil Baruth, Chris Pearson). Now that she’s gone, hey presto: Two seats, two incumbents. Easy peasy.

I proposed lumping together several communities in southern and eastern Chittenden, including Shelburne, Charlotte, Huntington (repatriated from Addison), Williston, Jericho and Richmond, among others. This would have been a seat without an incumbent, but now Ram lives there. She’d have the incumbent’s advantage if she can make herself known and liked in a brand-new district.

Essex, with 22,000 residents, is almost exactly the right size for its own district. I’m on board. The current Chittenden district is dominated by Burlington, and minimizes the clout of the suburbs. That ought to change.

A proposed northern district remains a bit of a problem. If you bring Colchester back into the fold, the combined population of Colchester, Winooski and Milton is 34,000 — too few for two seats, but too many for one. The simple solution, if not for Dick Mazza, would be to rope in the Champlain Islands and another small community or two (Westford, Underhill?) and create a two-person district. This idea ignores partisan concerns; that district would be promising territory for Republicans, and Winooski would be a progressive outlier in a very moderate district.

So what if we added Winooski to Burlington? That district’s population would be roughly 52,000 — too many for two seats, too few for three. You could solve it by adding a chunk of Colchester; that’d leave the Milton etc. district with a single seat. (The line would be carefully drawn so that Mazza was in the northern district.)

Under that scenario, you’d either have a single three-seat Greater Burlington district, or you could split up the territory into three one-seat districts. I’d prefer the latter, even though it complicates the reapportionment task.

Former state senator, now deputy auditor Tim Ashe, has floated the idea of turning the district into an imaginary pie and slicing it up from a Burlington midpoint. He argued that each of those districts would include a broad array of communities and thus be more reflective of Vermont as a whole.

In a comment on my original Chittenden post, Secretary of State Jim Condos argued for the Ashe plan by drawing a distinction between the House and Senate:

House members typically represent a town or several towns and thus are more parochial. Whereas Senate members are more global representing a county and thus different backgrounds of the many towns within a county. … Former Pro-Tem Tim Ashe actually is on the right track to try and make the split more global and in line with the original formation of the Senate around 1836.

Condos cited a passage from the Vermont Constitution: “In establishing senatorial districts, which shall afford equality of representation, the General Assembly shall seek to maintain geographical compactness and contiguity and to adhere to boundaries of counties and other existing political subdivisions.”

Um. Maybe I’m biased, but that passage seems to support my idea. “…adhere to boundaries of counties and other existing political subdivisions,” right? That’s what I tried to do. There’s certainly nothing there to support the Ashe concept.

I’m not a constitutional scholar, so I can’t speak to the original 1836 intent. But the arguments made by Ashe and Condos are what led us to where we are today — a Senate made up almost entirely of multi-member districts where it’s virtually impossible to defeat an incumbent. Which makes the Senate the stodgy, tradition-bound body that it is.

If you take the Condos/Ashe argument beyond Chittenden, would we split up Washington County from a point somewhere in Berlin outward, so that it remains extremely difficult for someone outside of Barre/Berlin/Montpelier to win a seat? That seems unfair to potential candidates from, say, Marshfield or Cabot or the Mad River Valley.

We’re not going to settle this argument here, and I’m going to guess that the pie concept may carry the day. It’d be better for the Democrats to keep a firm grip on Chittenden, and after all, the Dems will have to approve the end product.

Well, actually, the Apportionment Board won’t be considering Chittenden as an island. They’re more likely to move more Chittenden voters elsewhere — like, maybe a northeast Chittenden/western Lamoille district, or maybe keeping Huntington in Addison County and shifting another town from Chittenden to Addison. (The combined population of Addison and Huntington is roughly 38,000, a bit too small for two seats.)

So, for practical and political reasons, my idea is destined for the circular file. But I wanted to present an option for a fairer division of the district. I think I did so.

1 thought on “Son Of Hey, Let’s Have Some Fun With the Chittenden Senate District!

  1. Rama Schneider

    Don’t get too hung up on the numbers. Brown V. Thompson involved a case where there was a population deviation of 89% (https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/462/835/).

    (Quoting myself from a years old oped) U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Brown v. Thompson (1983) that there are valid reasons that make population disparities among districts constitutionally permissible, but “an apportionment plan with population disparities larger than 10% creates a prima facie case of discrimination, and therefore must be justified by the State, the ultimate inquiry being whether the plan may reasonably be said to advance a rational state policy and, if so whether the population disparities resulting from the plan exceed constitutional limits.”

    Reply

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