Commentary: Single-Member Districts Will Strengthen Democracy (March, 2019)

By John McClaughry

Kudoes to the Vermont Senate for passing a bill requiring that Senate districts “shall have a maximum of three members.” Interestingly, two of the three sponsors of S.11 (Sens. Ashe and Sirotkin) are elected from the Chittenden District, the only district with more than three members.

The main reason Vermont has one 6-member Senate district, three 3-member districts, six 2-member districts, and 3-single member districts is historical. Because of dissatisfaction with the performance of the one-town, one-vote House, and growing population disparities between Burlington and tiny towns like Baltimore and Stannard, the voters in 1836 adopted a constitutional amendment creating a Senate. It was viewed as a body representing counties, although Vermont counties were little more than judicial districts. After the courts ordered one person, one vote redistricting in the 1960s, the Constitution was again amended in 1974 to provide for Senate districts roughly equal in population.

Ever since, the decennial redistricting of the Senate has posed unavoidable problems, largely because of shifting populations. The Constitution now says the districts must “adhere to boundaries of counties and other existing political subdivisions.” There are now 13 Senate districts for electing thirty Senators from 14 counties.  Rather than do the sensible thing – forget about largely fictitious counties, and elect one Senator from each five contiguous equal-population House districts – the legislature has resorted to all sorts of awkward improvisations.

The most glaring is the six-member Chittenden District (minus Colchester, tacked on to Grand Isle). Since the six Senators are elected at-large, it’s almost certain they will all be Democrats, and conceivably all from Burlington itself. The Senate bill would, most likely, result in three Democratic/Progressive Senators from that Burlington core, and the other three – including possibly a Republican or two – from the “outer ring” district.

Even the operations director of the Democratic Party was quoted in Seven Days as observing, rightly, that “Vermont is very vulnerable to a legal challenge. The argument is, that a vote in one district counts more than a vote in another.”

That’s true, and a legal challenge could produce bizarre results. One egregious example emerged from a deadlocked redistricting battle in Illinois in1964. A Federal court mandated the notorious “bedsheet ballot”. Voters were handed a 33-inch long paper ballot and asked to choose 177 House members at large from 236 listed candidates.

Aside from arguments based on inequalities in voting power, there is another subtle but important argument against any multimember district, House or Senate. Those districts let incumbent protection defeat voter choice.

Consider this, in the three member district. Senators A, B, and C are running for reelection against D, E, and F. Now suppose Senator A is extremely controversial for his or her views and votes on a hot issue in the district. Challenger D is highly motivated to oust A. But D is aware that many of A’s likely voters, who each have three votes,  might also cast one of their three votes for D for other reasons, such as geography, name recognition, gender, party, and qualifications.

D realizes that his attack on A would alienate A’s supporters. They would vote for A and two others – either incumbents or challengers – who steered clear of challenging any of their fellow candidates. D figures that his chances of winning will be lower – possibly fatally lower – if he attacks A. So D joins E and F in avoiding criticism of any of the incumbents’ votes or misdeeds.

Bottom line: instead of an election giving the voters a choice to hold an incumbent accountable for his or her performance, the multimember district gives a strong incentive to all candidates to avoid any head-to-head challenge. If you wonder why we do this, bear in mind that every districting plan was designed by and approved by … incumbents.

By contrast, there are three single-member Senate districts: Orange, Grand Isle, and Lamoille. If voters in those districts disapprove of their one Senator, they can vote to replace him or her with a challenger. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work.

If an incumbent Senator really believes in democracy, he or she should summon the courage to put his or her own record before the voters, and defend it in debate with a contrary-minded challenger.

By all means get rid of the six-member district. Then get rid of the three- and two- member districts as well, in both Senate and House. Or at the very least, make candidates in multimember districts file and run for “Position 1”, or “Position 2” which would give the voters the same clear choice.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute


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