Hey, it’s time for hardcore #vtpoli folks to get their nerd on. After an unprecedented delay (caused by Trump administration incompetence/attempted sabotage), we’ve finally got the U.S. Census numbers for 2020!
This means that the most nerdly of all political processes, redistricting, can finally get serious. (The best place to geek out is the state’s Center for Geographic Information, which has already whacked out a whole bunch of Census breakdowns.) And now I return to my playground of barely-informed speculation on what the Census means for Vermont legislative districts.
The state’s total population of 643,000 was something of a surprise. That’s a 2.8% increase from 2010, and belies our reputation as a place that people are fleeing from. (Our growth rate is a far cry from the U.S. overall, which grew by 7.4%, but still, we’re growing.)
The population gains were concentrated in the northwest. The only counties that gained residents were Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille and Orleans. The driver of Vermont population growth is Burlington; as its housing situation gets tighter and tighter, people are buying homes farther and farther away from the Queen City.
The two counties that saw the biggest declines: Windham (down 6.98%) and Rutland (down 6,83%).
Chittenden County now has enough people to warrant eight Senate seats, up two from its current allotment. That’s bad news for the VTGOP. If Chittenden does, as it should, gain two seats, they will almost certainly come at the expense of Republican areas like the Northeast Kingdom and Rutland County. And the Republican presence in Chittenden is vanishingly small. The county’s current allotment of 36 state representatives includes 33 Dems (or Dem/Progs or Prog/Dems), and only three Republicans. All six senators are either Dems, Dem/Progs or Prog/Dems, and the GOP is simply uncompetitive. You can assume that any new seats will be filled by Dems or Progs.
And by the way, Chittenden County deserves two more House seats because of its growth.
Also by the way, since many towns in Franklin, Grand Isle and Lamoille are becoming bedroom communities for Burlington, those counties will almost certainly trend blue. Windham and Franklin aside, Vermont’s population declines are in Republican-leaning areas, while the growth is in Democratic counties.
To back up for a second, each Senate seat should represent roughly 21,400 Vermonters. Each House seat would ideally represent 4,300. Chittenden County’s new population is 168,000, which is just a teeny bit shy of the required number for eight seats — but within the margin of error.
Caveat: Senate districts don’t adhere exactly to county lines. Colchester isn’t currently in the Chittenden Senate district, for example. Shifting towns between counties is the best way to equalize population numbers.
Franklin County’s population warrants almost exactly 2 1/2 seats, so it will either shed some towns to nearby districts or absorb a few towns to bring it up to three full seats. Which way it goes largely depends on whether the Dems think they can be competitive in the new district.
Rutland County, at 57,381, is about 7,000 shy of keeping its current three Senate seats. Addison County is about 6,000 shy of keeping its current two, and Bennington County is about 6,000 shy of keeping its two. There’s a simple Democratic solution: Shift a few Republican towns from Rutland to Addison and Bennington. The latter counties would remain Democratic turf, while the primarily Republican district of Rutland loses a Senate seat.
The Northeast Kingdom, unsurprisingly, has taken a big hit in population. Right now the Kingdom has four Senate seats; it’s likely to lose one. The Rutland and Kingdom seats would shift to Chittenden, which solidifies the Democrats’ baked-in Senate dominance. (Also, as previously noted, it would put two first-term Republican Senators — Joshua Terenzini and Russ Ingalls — in danger of losing their seats.)
Because of a 2019 law, the six-seat Chittenden district has to go. The new law says no more than three seats in any legislative district. That’ll be a chore, but if I had my way it’d be even more complicated. I’d like to see a limit of two per district. Well, in an ideal world, I’d like to see single-seat districts throughout the Senate and House, but that’ll never happen.
Multi-seat districts are incumbency protectors. It’s harder for a House challenger to win in a double district representing 8,600 people than in a single-seat district with only 4,300 residents. The problem is compounded in the Senate, where you have one 6-seat district, three 3-seat districts, six 2-seat districts and only three single-seat districts. In Washington County, for instance, a new candidate would have to beat out one of the three entrenched incumbents. That’s almost impossible in a three-seat district representing roughly 60,000 people, and it is impossible in a six-seat district.
The House side is kind of a mess to figure out, so I’ll leave it to wiser heads. There are a lot of cross-border districts, so it takes some advanced analysis to determine which county has and/or deserves how many seats. Aside from Chittenden’s clear and obvious increase.
In closing, I want to show you a very telling map created by the VCGI. It shows county trends over the history of the state of Vermont, and its message is “One of these things is not like the others.”
Yeah, that’s a kick in the head. Every other county is more or less flat, while Chittenden has been rocketing to the moon since 1940-ish. That’s a remarkably consistent and seemingly irreversible trend. I guess we know why Republican dominance of Vermont politics has ebbed over the past several decades.