Editorial: Redistricting draft going nowhere

 

Former state Senator Gerry Gossens, a Salisbury Democrat, nailed it when he said of the draft redistricting plan for the 150 seats in the House submitted last week: “I believe it is wrong, with the months we’ve spent and the money we’ve spent, to submit a plan that we know will not be acceptable and probably won’t even be taken seriously.”

Gossens was one of seven members appointed to the State Apportionment Board that convenes once every decade to readjust the boundaries of Senate and House districts to accommodate the latest census numbers. In the recent past, the board has sought to be non-partisan and has simply tweak the existing districts to reflect changing population trends.

Not so this year. In a radical departure from the status quo, the seven-member board — made up of two Republicans, two progressives and three Democrats — drafted a plan that created many more single-seat districts and eliminated many two-seat districts. Specifically, the draft calls for 138 single-seat districts and only six two-seat districts, compared to 66 single-districts and 42 two-seats districts that we have today.

The result pits Democrats against Democrats in many single-seat districts, including pitting House Speaker Shap Smith of Morrisville against fellow Democrat Mark Woodward.

Almost every district in Addison County would be changed somewhat, except the two-seat district in Middlebury, often pitting one Democrat against another in what could be solidly Republican strongholds. Bristol, for example, is currently in a two-seat district combined with Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro. Under the proposed draft plan, Bristol would be its own seat with the eastern part of Monkton, Lincoln and Starksboro forming another district. The western half of Monkton would be shifted into a new district with Ferrisburgh. (See story on Page 1.) Which also points out one of the flaws of trying to establish single-seat districts: While it might be nice to have Bristol represented by a single representative, it often means that smaller towns have to be split into other districts to make the population figures work. With 150 House seats and a population of about 625,741, that comes out to 4,172 voters per House district — give or take up to 7 percent for adjustment purposes.

One of the reasons the Legislature has adopted multi-seat districts is to prevent towns from being split among different districts and having a small town like Monkton being represented by two state representatives. Another reason, however, is to align towns within school districts to have like representation. In Addison-3, which is comprised of Vergennes, Addison, Panton, Waltham and Ferrisburgh — which is also the Addison Northwest Supervisory School District — a single two-seat district covers the five towns. In the draft proposal, those same five towns are dispersed into parts of three districts.

Gossens’ point, however, is more basic. He recognizes that Democrats hold a supermajority in the House and Senate, along with a Democratic governor. And he recognizes that what the majority on the Apportionment Board did was try to rearrange the House districts in a way that Republicans and Progressives would benefit at the expense of Democrats by pitting Democrats against each other in smaller districts, and by isolating Republican-leaning areas into a single district.

The point and tradition of the Apportionment Board, however, is not to play politics, Gossens says, but to simply adjust the district borders to reflect the most recent population trends over the past decade. There is enough politics, Gossen says, going on in the House and Senate to suffice with no need for it in the Reapportionment Board.

The political flavor, however, was of little surprise. The board was appointed by then Gov. Jim Douglas, who made sure Neale Lunderville, one of Douglas’ chief political strategists, was on the board and would help lead the change. He was joined by former Vermont Republican Committee Chairman Rob Roper, two progressives, Democrat Frank Cioffi, and former Republican Rep. Tom Little of Shelburne, who served as chairman, and Gossens.

Interesting, Little (a true moderate) voted against the proposed plan along with Gossens and Cioffi, while the two Republicans and both Progressives voted for the proposed plan. Gossens and Little also drafted an alternative plan that tweaks the existing boundaries here and there, but makes only modest changes to most districts (and almost none to Addison County’s House districts.)

The Gossens-Little plan may well have the upper hand as this process goes forward, unless significant changes are made to the current draft before the next session begins in January. If the current proposal is not changed significantly, most political observers think it has no chance of passage. If it’s killed in the Legislature, the process goes to committee and the Legislature is faced with the task of crafting a plan that will meet with legislative approval. Tweaking the Little-Gossens plan would be one plausible scenario.

But as Gossens says, why go through such political turmoil when the outcome is obvious. Rather, in the face of overwhelming political odds, this would have been the year to stay as non-partisan as possible and get on to more important matters. That the Republicans and Progressives couldn’t resist such temptation, in the face of certain rejection, is not a flattering reflection of either.

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