Lawmakers mull how to divvy up seats

Daniel Barlow
April 15, 2009

MONTPELIER - A poor showing by the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in last year's election is forcing lawmakers to rethink how legislative districts are divided up in Vermont.

Legislative districts in the state are redrawn every 10 years to reflect new U.S. Census numbers, but without a change in state law, a state board that recommends exactly how to do that will be stacked with Republicans.

That's because the make-up of the Vermont Legislative Apportionment Board is in part appointed by the political parties whose gubernatorial candidates received at least 25 percent of the vote in the previous election - a threshold the Democratic Party failed to reach in 2008.

Democrat Gaye Symington garnered only 21.7 percent of the vote in her bid to unseat Republican Gov. James Douglas last year. It was the worst showing by a Democratic candidate for that seat in several decades.

"Last year's results were a fluke and we understand that," said Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, a member of the Senate Government Operations Committee. "It wouldn't be fair to shut out the Democrats because of this."

Redrafting legislative districts is traditionally fraught with politics as the final outcome could shift the balance of power in the Vermont House and Senate. But with a 2011 deadline to realign districts based on new population numbers, politics has already surfaced in the debate.

The Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday morning to a bill that would change the criteria for appointing members to the Apportionment Board, which oversees the process.

That plan, supported by a majority of Senate Democrats, would instead allow political parties with more than three members elected to the Legislature - so long as those politicians are not from the same county - to appoint a representative to the Board.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, the chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, said if the law is not changed, the Apportionment Board would comprise solely Republicans. Any redistricting plan submitted from a single party would be met with skepticism, she said.

"This process has worked fine five times every 10 years," White said Tuesday. "But now there is a problem that needs to be fixed."

But Senate Republicans have a different plan. Brock and Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington, the two GOP members of the Senate Government Operations Committee, offered an amendment on the floor Tuesday that would have lowered the threshold to any party that received 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote in the last election.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, worried that such a formula would create an incentive for the Vermont Progressive Party to field a gubernatorial candidate, again raising the situation that liberals in Vermont split the vote between Progressives and Democrats in that race.

Brock and Doyle withdrew that amendment, but plan to offer another one for the final floor vote on the bill Wednesday. Their new amendment, which also has support from at least two Senate Democrats, would change the threshold to any political party that has 18 or more members elected to the Legislature.

"Eighteen members represent 10 percent of the General Assembly, or about 30,000 voters," Doyle said. "That seems fair to earn a seat at the table."

Progressive members of the Vermont Legislature, who number five, worry that they will be shut out of the redistricting process. Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, said members of his party would not have a seat at the table under either scenario promoted in the Senate - and that worries him.

"Including us would dilute the historical dilemma between Republicans and Democrats that often mark legislative redistricting," he said. "I think we could help build consensus."

Of course, all the debate over who picks members of the Apportionment Board could be for naught. The Vermont Legislature makes the final decision as to how to redraw the districts, and typically the recommendation from the Board carries little or no weight.

But it is often a starting point for discussions, according to Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, a Democrat whose office staffs the Board while it does its work.

"This has always been a political issue for the Legislature," Markowitz said. "Any plan has to include a balanced board that has the respect of members from both sides of the aisle."