The Soft Abuse of Redistricting Power

Here’s a little bad news for those who think Vermont’s political processes are above reproach. The nonpartisan group RepresentUs, which opposes political abuses of the redistricting process, has rated Vermont as at “high risk” for such abuse. Along with such bulwarks of clean politics as Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Florida. Not exactly stellar company.

To be clear, RepresentUs isn’t ranking states by the likelihood of gerrymandering or the historical record or the mendacity of a state’s politicians. It simply considers the legal framework of the process. In practice, Vermont’s redistricting process has been fairly clean. But state law leaves the door open to partisan abuse.

Vermont gets low grades on two points: Political officeholders have the final say on redistricting, and the law doesn’t require transparency. You can see how those points could allow politicians to game the system.

By and large, they don’t. Well, they don’t do outrageous things; they don’t create districts that look like abstract art or imaginary amphibians. But partisanship can, and sometimes does, affect the process.

In fact, we might see a more partisan flavor in Vermont’s 2022 redraw, especially in the Senate.

The Senate boundaries will change quite a bit because of population shifts. Plus, a 2019 law mandates a division of the six-seat Chittenden district. (The law prohibits House or Senate districts with more than three seats.)

Chittenden and Franklin counties have seen robust growth since the 2012 redraw, while 10 of our 14 counties have lost population. (I’m citing figures from World Population Review; the actual Census tallies won’t get here until the fall.) The biggest losers: Rutland and Windham are down by nearly seven percent, Caledonia has lost more than five percent, and Bennington County is down by roughly four and a half percent.

The early betting line is that two first-term Republicans, Joshua Terenzini of Rutland County and the Northeast Kingdom’s Russ Ingalls, may be left standing when the music stops.

There are three reasons for that, in this order: Their districts are much smaller than they were a decade ago, they are rookies in a body that values tenure, and they are Republicans in a process largely controlled by Democrats. I honestly believe their party affiliation is the smallest factor, but it is definitely a factor.

I’m about to get in the weeds here. If you’re not that interested, skip the next few paragraphs and rejoin me at the bold type below.

Let’s start with Chittenden. By population, it should have seven and a half senators. Well, you can’t have half a senator, although some of them might be improved by The Magician’s Weight Loss Plan. You have to take away several towns or add a few. One possibility: A couple of “purple” towns in Lamoille (Stowe, Morrisville?) get added to Chittenden and don’t significantly dilute the Dems’ advantage in Chittenden.

If the process were strictly nonpartisan and seniority-blind, they’d tear apart the Grand Isle district and split it between Chittenden and Franklin. But Grand Isle is represented by Dick Mazza, and there’s no way in Hell the redraw will disadvantage a guy with 36 years of tenure.

The Kingdom currently has four seats, but only enough population to warrant three. The sitting senators are Jane Kitchel, Bobby Starr, Joe Benning and Ingalls. The first three have a combined 40 years of tenure; Ingalls has 1. Guess who’s losing that battle?

Southwest Vermont is also a problem area. Rutland County has three senators, but its population is a bit too small for that. Bennington County has two, and not enough population to keep two. You could solve both problems by adding southern Rutland County to the Bennington district; the result would be cutting a Republican seat in Rutland and preserving Bennington’s two Dems. (The Benn district would be a shade or two purpler, but should remain safe Democratic territory.) Terenzini, as a first-termer, is the most likely to lose a three-way primary for two Rutland seats.

Those are just my own scenarios, but they do solve a lot of problems: District populations are equalized, seniority is advantaged, and the Dem/Prog caucus shas a good chance of increasing its supermajority.

I’m not even going to try to look at the House, because that way lies madness.

Okay, we’re out of the weeds again. A few more points regarding the weaknesses of our process:

Redistricting begins with an independent commission, which is fine. But it’s merely an advisory body, which is not. The Legislature can amend, or even ignore, the commission’s work. In fact, I’ll bet you a shiny new dime that legislative leadership is already working on new maps.

For RepresentUs, that’s an unacceptable fox/henhouse situation. But hey, Vermont’s political structure abounds with such situations. The Legislature is extremely jealous of its power over issues that touch on its own interests, including but not limited to redistricting, ethics, campaign finance, financial disclosure, power over municipal charter changes, and no provision for citizen referenda. We are often at the mercy of lawmakers’ good intentions.

Now, the Democratic majority can’t go nutzoid, because the governor has veto power. Partisanship won’t run wild. But to say there won’t be any mischief at all? Given our redistricting process, you can’t say that.

We should institute redistricting reforms. Give the final say to an independent body and mandate that its work be done in public. Take away the politicians’ power, you take away the possibility of partisan hijinks.

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