The Legislative Apportionment Board has released its first draft of a map redistricting electoral districts for the House of Representatives across the state and recommended only single-member districts in doing so.
The map, narrowly approved in a 4-3 vote by the committee, does away with two-member districts — Lamoille County counts two such districts with a third encompassing the Craftsbury-Greensboro area in Orleans County — in favor of single-member districts.
The result is a map where the number of representatives in Lamoille County and the surrounding area remains the same, but it dismantles the two-member districts potentially meaning big changes on which current legislators will head back to the Statehouse in 2022.
But, if the past is any indicator, a final redistricting proposal approved by the full Legislature will differ from the apportionment board’s plan.
When a House electoral map composed solely of single-member districts was proposed a decade ago, the Legislature rejected it, maintaining many multi-member districts across the state.
“Ten years ago, I was on the House Government Operations Committee when we went through the last redistricting. The Legislative Apportionment Board came before our committee and presented their maps. Once they left our chair said, ‘Well, let’s get to work,’ and we pretty much kept the districts as close as possible to the current districts from 10 years prior to that,” said Republican Mark Higley, who currently represents Lowell and Eden in the Orleans-Lamoille House district, and who remains a member of the operations committee.
Higley conceded his committee will attempt to keep things as close to the status quo as possible, but with the shifts in population quantified by the 2020 census, some change is inevitable.
“The process is definitely not over,” he said. “I can guarantee it’s not going to end up the same as what the apportionment board did.”
The apportionment board proposes big changes in northwestern Lamoille County.
Democrat Rep. Lucy Rogers represents Cambridge and Waterville in the Lamoille-3 district, which would be rearranged, with Cambridge annexing a small section of Fairfax along Route 104 and gaining its own representative as Lamoille-5.
Waterville would take Belvidere and Johnson from the current two-member district of Lamoille-2 to become Lamoille-1.
Though quite a shift for Rogers, the Waterville resident and a presumptive candidate in a hypothetical Lamoille-1 district has been actively involved in Lamoille County politics, including efforts in Johnson to maintain the Northern Vermont University campus and expand regional broadband.
“I really love representing Cambridge, it would be really sad to not have them both just because it’s such a special town, but also for a lot of the relationships I’ve been working really hard on building,” Rogers said. “It just takes a certain amount of time to really build trust with the community when you present them. So, for all kinds of reasons, it would be sad to me not to represent Cambridge.”
But even if she may not like losing Cambridge, this first draft map checks her most important box, which is ensuring that the towns in the region aren’t split up and remain whole as voting blocks.
“It’s really important to keep towns whole as much as possible,” she said. “If it were possible to have entirely single member districts and have towns not be broken up, that would be the absolute ideal scenario, but that’s not possible in order to also have equal representation, which is kind of the mandatory parameter we’re working in. That’s the give and take of it.”
The response to the proposed map from Cambridge has been mixed. When the town’s board of civil authority met on Nov. 2, a vote to approve the map ended in a tie.
Cambridge Selectboard members George Putnam, Jeff Coslett and Cody Marsh were joined by Krista Huling and Derek Coffrin to vote in support of the proposed map, even though it would separate them from their current representative.
Cambridge Selectboard chair Courtney Leitz, town clerk Mark Schilling, Cambridge Conservation Board chair Justin Marsh and Adam Howard voted against how Cambridge was reorganized in the draft map.
For Leitz, it simply wasn’t fair to Fairfax residents to siphon off a chunk of their town in the name of making the possible Lamoille-5 district almost wholly Cambridge.
“You choose to move to a place for a specific reason, often because it’s a place you want to be in and a place where you want your vote heard,” she said. “While I understand the numbers, and possibly some of the reasoning, it seemed like it was kind of an unfortunate situation for Fairfax, more than it being an unfortunate situation for Cambridge.”
Leitz also said that Rogers was liked in Cambridge and losing her representation would be a “definite blow.”
Johnson, Hyde Park and Eden
A proposal to shift Waterville, Belvidere and Johnson into a single-member district does not push Rogers into conflict with Kate Donnally, a Democrat who lives in Hyde Park.
The draft apportionment proposal makes Hyde Park and Eden one voting district as Lamoille-2, putting Donnally in play to run for that newly-formed district and removes Higley, a Lowell resident and longtime representative in Eden.
Both representatives who currently represent the two-member district that encompasses Johnson, Donnally and Wolcott Democrat Dan Noyes, attended a Johnson Board of Civil Authority meeting on Oct. 26 when the draft map was discussed.
The map was approved by the board 5-3 and included an addendum to say that “a single member district most closely represents its constituency.”
“During the recent board of civil authority meetings, all of the towns within my district that would become single-member districts in the most recent map voted in favor of it. People expressed the benefits of smaller-sized districts where Representatives are closely tied to the community and easily accessible. There are others in my communities who are concerned that they would be losing a voice in the state Legislature,” Donnally said. “No matter the ultimate shape of the districts, I will work hard to be accessible and responsive to my constituents.”
When it came to Eden being grouped with Hyde Park, Higley was unequivocal in his distaste for the proposed change.
“I certainly would hate to lose Eden and I’ve had some calls from constituents since that proposal came out who were concerned as well,” he said.
Though he’ll have a voice in shaping the final redistricting map, Higley acknowledged some change is likely on the horizon.
Proposed changes to two-member district Lamoille-2, which covers a wide swath of northern Lamoille County, would strand Noyes off in a new Lamoille-3 district, which would encompass all of Wolcott, Elmore and a portion of Morrisville.
That chunk of Morrisville in the proposed Lamoille-3 is where Democrat David Yacovone lives. He’s currently one of two representatives serving the sprawling Lamoille-Washington district, but this draft map sets up a potential showdown between him and Noyes.
For his part, Noyes is waiting to see what the Government Operations Committee gives him to vote on.
“What really matters is what is the proposal that I’m going to be looking at in the Legislature, that comes out of government ops,” Noyes said. “They’re going to look at this proposal, and they’re going to come up with a map that may look nothing like this, as it has in the past, or it may look something like it. That is what I’m going to be voting on.”
Though he’s content to wait and see how things shake out, Noyes does believe that multi-member districts, like the one he’s currently in, is what’s best for rural Vermonters anxious about losing ground to burgeoning urban areas like Burlington.
“By having single-seat districts in rural Vermont, I think it creates less and it hurts more,” he said. “Having more reps in a district gives you more. It gives you more ability to make sure that older Vermonters in rural Vermont have access to services and make sure that the school funding model doesn’t leave the children in rural areas with less.”
Craftsbury and Greensboro
The rangy two-member Orleans-Caledonia district currently encompasses seven towns across two counties. Its two representatives, Democrat Katherine Simms from Craftsbury and Republican Vicki Strong from Albany, are both from the western region of the area.
Though coming from different political camps, both agree that a smaller, single-member district may serve the area better. The draft map creates a single-member district, Orleans-3, out of Greensboro, Craftsbury, Albany and Irasburg.
“I think Vermonters get better constituent services and representation when they’re single-member districts,” Simms said. “At least in my current configuration, there’s a lot of school boards and a lot of selectboards and a bunch of different papers and district utilities to maintain relationships with. So, I certainly understand and appreciate the effort of the apportionment board to look at single member districts.”
Simms believes that including Glover instead of Irasburg in a new district would make more logistical sense while Strong, who lives near Irasburg and spends a lot of time in the town already has a relationship there.
Though the new proposed district would pit her and Strong against one another electorally, Simms said she’s trying to approach the issue from the perspective of what’s best for her constituents.
“Physically speaking, when you think of my district, it looks like a square on a map and it looks like it works,” Strong said. “But both Katherine and I are on the other side of a large area to get to Sheffield and Wheelock. Often, through the years, I’ve felt that sense of almost guilt. It’s so much harder to get to Sheffield and Wheelock, it’s just kind of an awkward way to drive there.”
Despite coming from different political parties, Strong said she and Simms work well together and both have their own strengths. Strong sits on the Committee on Forestry and Agriculture and Simms sits on the Committee on Energy and Technology.
“I think we both feel a sense of almost dread that we would have to run against each other,” Strong said. “Because I think she’s a good asset to the district right now. I have the strength of the years I’ve put in and the networks I’ve built, in terms of knowing people and who to contact about certain problems. There are pluses and minuses. Obviously, if we had to run against each other, that could be a little tricky.”
Tommy Gardner contributed to this report.