A seven-member Senate committee in an unannounced hearing Thursday unanimously approved a significant reconfiguration of Vermont state Senate districts.
The proposal, which would determine the distribution of Vermont’s 30 senators for the next 10 years, shifts representation from the Northeast Kingdom to Chittenden County and breaks up the current – and highly unusual – six-member district of the latter. These changes are the result of population shifts measured by the 2020 census, as well as a law passed in 2019 banning senatorial constituencies with more than three members.
In Vermont, Senate constituencies roughly follow county lines, with most being represented by one to three members at large. Each senator should represent as many as possible 21,436 voters. Committee members agreed early in the redistricting process that they would not consider moving to all-single-member ridings, as has been debated at length in the House.
As the Senate proposal garnered unanimous support from the Senate Tripartite Redistribution Committee on Thursday, politicians on both sides of the ideological spectrum outside the Statehouse expressed concern about it — and the process leading to it.
Vermont Republican Party Chairman Paul Dame said he was confident the map favored Democrats and incumbents, saying more conservative communities such as Barre and Northfield were drowned out in larger districts encompassing liberal strongholds, such as Montpellier.
“If you gave Paul Dame a magic wand and he had to draw the whole map by himself, I don’t know if I could draw a map that would guarantee you Republican victory,” Dame said. “But if you gave the Democrats all the power they have, I don’t know if they could do anything more gerrymander than the map I’m looking at right now.”
Jim Dandeneau, a former Democratic Party staffer from Vermont, had a starkly different take on the map: “Based on retirements, this map seems to be breaking up the supermajority of Democrats.” His party currently controls 21 seats, while the Republicans hold seven and the Progressives two.
If the full Senate approved the map, it would grant populous Chittenden County a seventh seat and divide it into three new districts: a three-member Chittenden-Central District comprising Burlington, Winooski and Essex Junction; a three-member Chittenden-Southeast District running from South Burlington to Charlotte in the East and Underhill and Bolton in the West; and a Chittenden-North single-member district which would include Milton, Fairfax, Westford and the town of Essex.
The project to create a Chittenden-Nord district aroused the warmest reactions from Dame and Dandeneau. Dandeneau said he thinks the new district is “solidly Republican” and could cost Democrats a seat.
Dame, who previously represented Essex Junction in the House, said: ‘Essex is getting screwed on this new map.
“What I see happening in my old home neighborhood of Essex is the closest thing to gerrymandering I think I’ve ever seen in Vermont. This is very alarming,” Dame said. “Essex is the second largest community in the state. They cut him in half and made him a junior partner in two different Senate constituencies.
Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, told VTDigger that he knows “there are people who aren’t going to like this.” But he said the committee looked at several different setups in that region, and the one they landed on made the most sense.
“The way we ended up, I think, for the northern district of Chittenden works because you have towns like Milton and Fairfax, and really a lot of the city of Essex, as well as Westford, are rural towns , a lot of it is agricultural,” he said. “So that makes sense.”
Currently, three counties in the North East Kingdom are served by four senators – two representing a district that includes Essex and Orleans counties and two representing Caledonia County. The new map would split Essex and Orleans into single-member constituencies and eliminate one seat representing Caledonia. (One of that county’s two senators, Republican Joe Benning, has already announced his intention to give up his seat to run for lieutenant governor.)
Chittenden County would also retain its district of Grand Isle, which historically included Colchester and was represented for decades by Democratic Senator Dick Mazza.
The proposed map makes other adjustments across the state to keep the resident-to-senator ratio as even as possible, such as expanding Rutland District’s geographic footprint to offset population attrition.
Rutland was one of three counties in Vermont whose population declined between 2010 and 2020, according to census figures released last summer – a 1.7% drop, in Rutland’s case – but the county would retain its three seats under the plan. Essex and Caledonia counties saw even larger declines of 6.1% and 3.2%, respectively.
Chittenden County, meanwhile, rose 7.5%, while Lamoille County rose 6% and Franklin and Grand Isle counties 4.6% each.
As for accusations that the committee drafted a map favorable to one party or the other, Brock, along with Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, pointed to the vote count.
“The vote speaks for itself. It was 7-0 across the board,” Pearson said. “So I think all seven of us got what we thought made sense and accepted things we didn’t like. That’s the process.
Despite the important nature of the proposal, Thursday’s meeting — let alone the vote — was not announced on the Legislative Assembly’s website, as it should be. A legislative staffer updated the agenda early Friday and informed VTDigger of the change. The meeting was streamed via the redistribution committee’s YouTube page. The map wasn’t made available to VTDigger until around 7 p.m., and it wasn’t posted for public viewing until after 8 p.m.
Dame said the entire Senate committee map-drawing process was “a black box.” He only learned that the committee had held a hearing on Thursday, let alone voted on a map, after seeing late night media coverage.
Senators cannot officially vote on the redistribution bill, H.722, until they receive it from the House. The House passed the bill with a new map of the House on Thursday. From there, the Senate Redistribution Committee will insert its map into the bill, send it to the Senate, and then return it to the House for approval before it heads to Governor Phil Scott’s office.
Did you miss the latest scoop? Sign up here to receive a weekly email with all of VTDigger’s political stories. And in case you can’t get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for the final read for a preview of the day’s news in the Legislative Assembly.