Local math whiz helps redraw Vt. voting map
LINCOLN — With the goal of adhering to a “one-person, one vote” standard, the decennial reapportionment of legislative districts is “largely a mathematical exercise,” according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s website.
If that’s the case, Lincoln’s Jeanne Albert — a lifelong mathematician — is indeed at home on the Vermont Legislative Apportionment Board (LAB), the seven-member panel charged with taking the most recent U.S. Census numbers to potentially reshape the Green Mountain State’s Vermont House and Senate districts based on population changes during the past 10 years.
“I have an interest in the topic, and that’s partly why I put my name forward,” said Albert, who prior to her recent retirement was a professor of mathematics at Castleton University and then director of STEM and Quantitative Support at Middlebury College.
Throughout her career, Albert has sought to make math more understandable and accessible to students. Her techniques have included marrying math with such topics as environmental science, sustainable harvesting, voting and population growth. So Albert had already crunched election-type numbers when she was invited last fall to join the LAB. The panel includes appointees from the Democratic, Republican and Progressive parties, and its leader — Tom Little of Winooski — was picked by the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.
The LAB has been meeting monthly since forming last year, but has been limited to general discussions on the reapportionment process. That’s because the U.S. Census Bureau was been late in giving states the detailed demographic information needed to begin the redistricting process in earnest. The original timeline called for the LAB to get detailed census data by April 1, triggering a 90-day period for LAB to complete both a final state Senate apportionment plan and a preliminary House plan by July 1.
This would have led to a back-and-forth between the LAB and the Boards of Civil Authority of towns likely to be directly affected by reapportionment, according to Albert, culminating in a final House apportionment plan — incorporating feedback from the towns — delivered to the Legislature 45 days later, on Aug. 15.
Well, a new timetable is starting to take shape, as the Census Bureau on Aug. 12 finally delivered the more detailed population information to the states. It’s now looking like the LAB will be given a total of 90 days to complete its reapportionment report and recommendations. That said, the LAB will soon move to twice-per-month meetings, all of which will be open to the public, according to Albert.
Albert believes the LAB will begin its analysis of the 2020 census figures by early September, leading to submission of a reapportionment report by late November.
What the panel will do during the coming weeks: Look at Vermont’s new census numbers, look at the current legislative district boundaries, and see if some of those boundaries must shift based on population growth or migration. The goal: adhere to the “one person, one vote” principle, as much as possible.
Ideally, every representative or senatorial district should have exactly the same population represented by exactly the same number of representatives or senators. It’s a lofty goal that isn’t always possible, because of municipal and county borders, socio-economic factors, and other issues.
“We compare the actual number to the ‘ideal’ number, and that gives us a deviation, plus or minus,” Albert said. “The percent deviation is what we care about. We want (the deviations) to be as close to zero as possible, but they can’t be over a certain amount, or it could be challenged legally. It can’t really be over 10%.”
BY THE NUMBERS
It’s still early in the process, but Albert provided a peek at some of the basic numbers:
• Vermont’s total new population (as of April 1, 2020) is estimated at 643,503, which includes military and civilian federal employees (and families) living overseas whose home state is Vermont. For state legislative redistricting purposes, the figure of 643,077 will be used, which excludes Vermonters living overseas. The state’s population grew roughly 2.75% during the past 10 years.
• Addison County’s new population total is 37,363, which represents a 1.47% increase compared to the 36,823 total for 2010.
• The “ideal” single-member House district should contain 4,287 constituents, a figure arrived at by dividing the state population by the total number of House seats (150). The idea two-member district would therefore contain 8,574 constituents.
• On the Senate side, the ideal district during the next decade should contain 21,435 constituents, which is total state population divided by the total number of state Senate seats (30). So the ideal two-member Senate district should include 42,870 residents, and a three-member district would contain 64,305.
Thanks to a state law passed in 2019, no senatorial district in Vermont will be represented by more than three senators, in order to ensure one region of the state doesn’t have a disproportionate influence in legislative decisions. For years, Chittenden County — the most populated area in the state — was represented by six senators. The LAB will help divide the Chittenden County district into smaller segments with no more than three senators.
Addison County’s senatorial district includes Huntington and Buel’s Gore. Albert believes the county will still require a community or two from outside its boundary in order to meet the numbers required for a two-seat senatorial district. It remains to be seen whether those add-ons will continue to be Huntington and Buel’s Gore, which joined the district in 2010 in place of Brandon.
• It appears the northwest part of the state has seen the most growth during the past decade, while the southern and northeastern parts have seen the least.
Albert is eager to get into the numbers crunching, and she’s pleased Vermont’s reapportionment process hasn’t been as politically charged as it’s been in other states, where gerrymandering — the manipulation of district boundaries — is a weapon used by the majority party to maximize its power.
Albert made sure her students knew what the term meant during math class.
“I figured out at one point that I could gerrymander the class without them knowing — just as a way to get them to understand what ‘gerrymandering’ was,” she recalled. “Through a minimum of subterfuge, I figured out a way to divide them up and have a little election and have them realize, ‘Wait a minute, the majority of the class prefers this, buy the majority of the districts came out this other way. What does that mean?’”
Folks who want to keep track of the reapportionment process should visit the LAB website, sos.vermont.gov/apportionment-board.
She described the board’s top objective in one word.
“Balancing,” she said. “It’s all about balancing.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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