The Vermont Legislature is in the middle of the reapportionment process, the redrawing of legislative districts that occurs every ten years. By the time you read this, the House Government Operations Committee may have given initial approval to a draft redistricting plan. It’s only the first step in a lengthy process, and nothing will be finalized for some time yet. But that hasn’t kept Republicans from whingeing about how majority Democrats are rigging the system to ensure another decade in power.
Sen. Corey Parent is out with an opinion piece calling the process “unnecessarily rushed” and “outrageous.” David Flemming of the Ethan Allen Institute notes that Vermont is at high risk of partisan gerrymandering. GovOps Committee Republicans reportedly favor a redistricting map that’s being sidelined by majority Dems.
And you know what? I don’t want to hear it from any Republican. The GOP is the reigning champion of the gerrymandering game. Vermont Democrats are not going to do anything nearly as perfidious as the legislatures in, say Ohio or Texas or Florida. The only reason Vermont Republicans are complaining is that they’re in the minority. If they were in power, they’d throw principle out the window in service of protecting their advantage.
Besides, the courts have approved all but the most extreme gerrymandering. It’s officially fair game, right? Well, only if you’re the victim, not the perpetrator.
Parent objects to the accelerated process and lack of public input. The majority Democrats answer him pretty well in the current draft of the reapportionment bill. It notes that the Legislative Apportionment Board (a nonpartisan entity tasked with recommending a new map) submitted its recommendation on November 30, while the normal submission date is August 15.
The chair of the LAB presented the recommendations to House Gov Ops on December 8. And the Board didn’t finalize and submit its written report until January 5. That’s the day before yesterday, for those keeping score at home.
The normal process is to hold public hearings in the fall after the LAB submits its report in August. That couldn’t happen this time because of the Census delays. But the deadline for completing the work is unchanged because you can’t delay the 2022 election process. The filing deadline for major party candidates is May 26. Potential candidates have to have enough time before then to make informed decisions about running. Until then, they may not even know which district they live in.
House Gov Ops still wants public input; it plans to hold public hearings after a draft map is approved. Nothing would be finalized until a second committee vote following public hearings and feedback from municipal officials around the state.
I will say I share some of Parent’s cynicism about the process. Even in normal years, I doubt that public hearings move the meter very much, if at all. But that’s true of just about every public hearing held by lawmakers.
Flemming’s complaints are based on a study by RepresentUs that I wrote about last August. It found that Vermont is at high risk for gerrymandering because elected officials from the majority party have authority over reapportionment. This is true. Our Legislature is very jealous of its powers regarding ethics enforcement, campaign finance law, financial disclosure requirements and redistricting, and I have complained about lawmakers’ dominance over all those areas.
But historically, Vermont’s legislative majorities don’t abuse their power. Well, not much, anyway. Nowhere near as much as in other states. America’s reapportionment process is designed to be controlled by elected politicians in the majority. What the hell do you think they’re going to do?
Do I wish the process was devoid of politics? Sure. I’d much prefer that all states create independent commissions with statutory authority. It’s happened in other states. But in one of those states, Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers are trying to subvert the process because the new maps created by the independent body would erase the advantages the Republican majority built into the post-2010 maps.
Again, no Republican has clean hands on the issue, and I have no patience for those who bemoan the injection of — gasp! — politics into a process they’re not shy of politicizing.
The main issue in this year’s process is whether to eliminate multi-member districts. The LAB submitted two maps. Its preferred version would kill multi-member districts, but House Gov Ops is moving ahead with the other version. Personally, I’d prefer single-member districts. Multi-member districts are incumbent-protection devices. The bigger the district, the harder it is for a challenger to take on an incumbent.
But single-member districts would not guarantee a fair map. If Democrats wanted to bake in partisan advantage, they could do it whether they include multi-member districts or not.
Besides all that, Gov. Phil Scott has the power to veto reapportionment bills. In this compressed year, that would create a real problem. There’s no time to go back to Square One. The Democrats have every incentive to create maps that our Republican governor will approve of.
In itself, that fact will keep the monkey business to a minimum. I wish there was no monkey business at all. I wish the parties competed purely on the quality of their ideas. But we don’t live on that planet. And on reapportionment, Republican hands are at least as dirty as Democratic ones. So I’m not buying the crocodile tears.