Eric Davis: Multi-member districts have merits

The boundaries of the legislative districts from which Vermont’s 30 senators and 150 representatives are elected must be redrawn following each census to reflect changes in the state’s population in the preceding 10 years. Next month, the U.S. Census Bureau will release the official population of each of Vermont’s cities and towns as of the April 1, 2020, census date. The work of redistricting will then begin in earnest.

The initial maps will be drawn by a Legislative Apportionment Board consisting of a chair appointed by the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, and two members of each of the state’s major political parties — Democrats, Republicans and Progressives. The chair of the board for this cycle is Tom Little, an attorney and former legislator from Shelburne, who served in the same role for the 2010 redistricting.

The Legislature is responsible for drawing the final maps, and is free to accept as much or as little of the reapportionment board’s plan as it wishes. In previous redistricting cycles, the Legislature has often turned aside many of the board’s suggestions for new districts. In the past, the board has tried to reduce the number of multi-member districts in favor of more single-member districts. These proposals have not been included in the final maps drawn by the Legislature.

While most state legislatures have only single-member districts, there are 10 states, including Vermont, that use multi-member districts. Nationwide, about 15 percent of state legislators are elected from multi-member districts. Currently, 27 of the 30 members of the Vermont Senate are elected from multi-member districts, ranging in size from two to six members, while 92 of the 150 members of the Vermont House are elected from two-member districts.

A significant change regarding multi-member districts was enacted by the Legislature in 2019. Beginning with the 2021 redistricting cycle, no Vermont Senate district may have more than three members. This means the end of the six-person Chittenden Senate district, which is currently the largest multi-member state legislative district in the nation. With the census data likely to show Chittenden County growing faster than the rest of the state, the apportionment board and the Legislature will have to draw maps dividing Chittenden into at least two districts with no more than three members each.

Two arguments have been offered against multi-member districts. The first is that voters who live in multi-member districts have more influence over the composition of the legislature than voters who live in single-member districts. A voter who can elect two representatives and three senators affects more of the chamber than a voter who can elect only one member of each house. The second argument against multi-member districts is that they tend to advantage incumbents, especially if they are members of the majority party.

In my opinion, there are stronger arguments for retaining multi-member legislative districts in Vermont. First, having most senators elected from larger districts whose boundaries typically include all or most of a county enables senators to bring the views of a more diverse constituency to Montpelier. Senators elected from different types of constituencies than House members is an important part of having a bicameral legislature.

Second, if more House districts were single-member districts, many towns that now elect two members would have to be divided. Middlebury is an example of such a town. Dividing towns of 8,000 to 10,000 people into two single-member districts would be confusing to voters and would reduce the accountability of legislators to citizens.

Finally, combining several smaller towns into a two-member House district enables communities that share a common interest, such as being in the same school district, to be included in the same legislative district. For example, the current Addison-3 House district includes all of the towns in the Addison Northwest School District, while the Addison-4 House district includes all but one of the towns in the Mount Abraham Unified School District.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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