Democracy has certainly been under attack recently. On Jan. 6, 2001, a violent mob invaded the U.S. Capitol, and multiple states are creating gerrymandered reapportionment plans and passing laws making it harder to vote.
Vermont is set to lead in the other direction, and to show that democracy is alive and well here. With the start of the 2022 legislative session, the first bills we’ll be passing will be to support democracy.
Vermont’s long-held tradition of Town Meeting, our exercise in pure democracy, has been challenged by COVID. How can we keep this foundation of Vermont democracy going and still ensure the health and safety of voters and the election officials who run the meetings and staff the polls?
As we did last year, the legislature passed some flexibility for towns to do what best fits their community. Some will opt to not change a thing and meet that first Tuesday in March. Some will hold informational meetings online, then vote by Australian ballot. And some will move the date to warmer times and hold the meeting safely outdoors (as one of the towns I represent, Westminster, did last year.) Current law doesn’t allow for that flexibility, but this year we’ll again be making allowances because of COVID.
The other bill moving early this session is the start — and I emphasize the word “start” — of the long process we’re undertaking to craft our every-10-years reapportionment plan. In a regular year, the U.S. Census is completed much earlier (May), after which the Legislative Apportionment Board (LAB) drafts a plan to recommend to the legislature. The LAB has seven members, with representation from Vermont’s three major parties. Next, the Senate and House Government Operations committees hold public hearings in the summer and fall.
This time the census numbers didn’t come in until August, and the LAB didn’t get its plan out until late November and finalized in January. So we’re five months behind, trying to get this important work done — and all of our other work completed — before the May adjournment.
The LAB looked at two plans and passed its final map on a 4-3 vote, with tri-partisan coalitions voting on both sides of the split. That’s unusual. Past plans have garnered unanimous support, even with tri-partisan membership. The main difference appears to be that the LAB’s adopted map would create all single-member House districts — contrary to the language in our Vermont Constitution, which doesn’t call for that. As with any laws we pass, your feedback is essential. In fact, it is our duty, as elected legislators, to listen to our voters.
The LAB also produced an alternate map, which received a 3-4 vote from the LAB. The alternate map hews more to the language in our state laws that encourage recognizing town borders and traditional district composition, while maintaining an even lower deviation from the ideal district sizes according to population data. It’s also more closely aligned with feedback from voters through their local boards of Civil Authority.
The House is ready to add the LAB’s alternate map to the mix to elicit broader feedback. It is far from a final product, but rather a way to give towns more time to respond. In a process that happens only once a decade, it feels essential to offer as much opportunity for feedback as possible. It will still take months before we get to a final plan to send to the governor. The wailing and gnashing of teeth, from some saying we’re rushing a plan through, ignores the fact that this is the start of the process, not the end.
We will have hearings, listen to Vermonters, and use that feedback to create a plan from the grassroots. That feedback will be essential to an open process in drafting a reapportionment plan that is fair, legal and responsive to voter input at the local level.
There will be other ways during this session that Vermont will set itself apart from other states and be a leader to show that democracy is alive and well here. And we intend to keep it that way.