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Editorial: Fracturing the political debate

In the on-going debate on the redistricting proposal offered by the state Reapportionment Board, interesting comments are bubbling up from the grassroots. One prominent perspective is that single-seat districts would bring a more disciplined approach to government because state representatives would be closer to their constituents — each district in Vermont ideally would represent 4,127 constituents — and tell them they cannot have what they are asking because it is too costly. The theory is that the smaller the representative body, the more direct the state representative will be with voters.
If only that were true.
Reality suggests a different truth. Consider the U.S. House of Representatives with its 435 representatives; a body that represents “pork central.” The task of each House member, many elected representatives feel, is to bring home that region’s share of the federal pie; not to impose fiscal discipline on constituents. It is why the U.S. Senate with just two members per state has been considered the more “deliberative body” (as proposed by the Founding Fathers), and the House the more reactive body.
It is little different in the Vermont’s House, except the pot of money to bring home is almost non-existent. Nonetheless, it is the House’s role to represent the needs of their local district so that specific legislation serves those affected, if enough other members agree it is a prudent concern.
The larger Senate districts, on the other hand, take a more global perspective and are more apt to impose fiscal restraints precisely because they are notas intimately involved with their constituents.
In the newest version of the House redistricting plan, as reported in today’s paper (see story Page 1A), Middlebury would be split into two single-seat districts, separated by Route 7 (one district to the east and one to the west). It is plausible that, if enough Middlebury College students registered to vote, they could easily dominate the western district and perhaps elect someone from the Progressive Party or another party that would bring a list of priorities to Montpelier that would further splinter the public debate as well as fracture Middlebury’s representation. That’s not a likely scenario, but it points out another downside to single-seat districts.
The general rule here reflects the human condition well: The more intimately involved an elected politician is to the individual voter, the less likely they are to represent the “common good.” Similarly, the smaller the legislative district, the more fractured are the points of view in Montpelier (or Washington) and the less cohesive the political conversation will be.
In practical terms, if the goal is to achieve the best political solutions for “all” Vermonters, promoting two-seat House districts (rather than single-seat districts) would be the appropriate directive.

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