Op/Ed

Eric Davis: Census will shift Senate makeup

A major item on the agenda for next year’s Vermont Legislature will be redrawing the lines for the state’s 30 Senate and 150 House seats. Later this year, the U.S. Census Bureau will provide states with detailed population counts from the 2020 census needed to redistrict state legislatures in accordance with the Constitution’s “one person-one vote” requirement.
Preliminary population estimates from the Census Bureau, based on data through 2018, indicate that Vermont’s population has remained nearly constant, at about 626,000 people, since the last census in 2010. This is very different from the nation as a whole, where demographers estimate that the 2020 census will show overall population growth of between 6 and 7% over the past decade.
Beneath the statewide population stability in Vermont since 2010, there are regional trends that will impact legislative redistricting for 2022. Research by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office shows that three counties in northwestern Vermont — Chittenden, Franklin, and Lamoille — are likely to have grown by nearly 8% since the last census. Almost all of the population growth in Vermont since 2010 has been within 25 miles of Burlington: throughout Chittenden County, in the southern part of Franklin County, and in the western part of Lamoille County.
If the state’s population as a whole has remained nearly stable since 2010 while the northwestern part of the state has been growing, other parts of Vermont must be losing population. The Joint Fiscal Office report shows that the most substantial population drops have been in the state’s southern counties. The population of Rutland County is estimated to have dropped by almost 8% since the last census, with the other counties south of Route 4 — Bennington, Windham and Windsor — each estimated to have lost at least 3% of their 2010 population.
How might these population changes play out in terms of redistricting the Vermont Senate in 2022? Each of the 30 Senate seats represents slightly more than 3% of the state’s population. Currently, there are nine Senate seats in northwestern Vermont — six in the Chittenden district, one in the Chittenden-Grand Isle district, and two in the Franklin district. There are now 10 Senate seats in southern Vermont — three each in the Rutland and Windsor districts, and two each in the Bennington and Windham districts.
A consequence of the population trends since the last census is that at least one, and possibly two, Senate seats will be shifted from southern Vermont to the northwestern part of the state. The Senate district most likely to lose a seat is the Rutland district, the area of the state with the largest population loss since 2010. If a second seat needs to be shifted north, Windsor County’s population loss since 2010 is estimated to be slightly larger than the decline in Bennington and Windham counties.
Adding seats in northwestern Vermont will be complicated by a rules change enacted by the 2019-2020 Legislature. As of the next redistricting, no Senate district may have more than three seats. The six-member Chittenden district, the largest multi-member state legislative district in the nation, will be no more. My analysis of population trends in Chittenden County shows that there should likely be eight senators from that county as of 2022 — up from the current six from the Chittenden District and one from the Chittenden-Grand Isle district.
The three-seat limit per district would mean that legislative mapmakers would have to divide Chittenden County into at least three districts, with two or three senators each. Legislative redistricting never happens in a vacuum — partisan and incumbency considerations play a large part. Of the Chittenden district’s six current members, four live in Burlington or South Burlington. Drawing new lines for the Chittenden districts that do not result in incumbents having to run against each other for fewer seats in the Democratic primary will be a major redistricting challenge for next year’s Legislature.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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