When establishing districts, the Legislative Apportionment Board, General Assembly, and Boards of Civil Authority must adhere to criteria that are outlined in the Vermont Constitution and state statutes. These criteria require the creation of districts that not only afford equal representation but also promote effective representation as well. How closely an apportionment plan conforms to the criteria often becomes the subject of court challenges.
The General Assembly “shall make a new apportionment of its membership in order to maintain equality of representation among the respective districts as nearly as is practicable.”
– Chapter II, §73, Vt. Constitution
Often referred to as the “one-person, one vote” standard, equality of representation is central to reapportionment. As a result, the process of reapportionment is largely a mathematical exercise. Ideally, every representative district or senatorial district should have exactly the same population represented by exactly the same number of representatives or senators.
The ideal population of a district, known as the “apportionment standard,” is calculated by dividing the population of Vermont by the total number of seats in either the House or Senate. For example, the total population of Vermont in 2001 was 608,850 people. The apportionment standard for the House of Representatives in that year was:
608,850 ÷ 150 House members = 4,059 people per representative in an ideal House district.
The Senate standard for 2001 was:
608,850 ÷ 30 Senators = 20,295 people per senator in an ideal Senate district.
Because competing criteria make the creation of ideal districts nearly impossible, reapportionment plans strive to create districts that are substantially equal. Districts thus deviate from the ideal to some degree. The “overall deviation” of a plan, expressed as a percentage, is the sum of the percentages by which the most under-represented district and the most over-represented district vary from the ideal. For example, in the final House plan enacted in 2001, the Windham-5 district (Westminster, Dummerston, and Putney) was the most over-represented district. It was created as a two-member district with a population of 7,425 individuals. This translated to 3,712 people per representative, which was 8.54% below the ideal of 4,059 people per representative. The most under-represented district, Windsor-1-2 (Springfield), was a two-member district with 8,956 individuals. This translated to 4,478 individuals, which was above the ideal by 10.32%. The overall deviation of the 2001 House plan thus was 18.84%.
Overall deviations are often looked to as a measure of how closely an apportionment plan conforms to the one-person, one vote standard. Typically, plans that have an overall deviation of 10% or less are considered to have met the standard of substantial equality. While there is no formal limit on the maximum deviation permissible by law, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an overall deviation of 16.4% "may well approach tolerable limits" (Mahan v. Howell (1973)). When challenged, plans with high overall deviations usually must demonstrate how the proposed system satisfies additional criteria or advances other state policies to justify the higher degree of deviation.
“In establishing representative districts, which shall afford equality of representation, the General Assembly shall seek to maintain geographical compactness and contiguity…”
– Chapter II, §13, Vt. Constitution
“In establishing senatorial districts, which shall afford equality of representation, the General Assembly shall seek to maintain geographical compactness and contiguity…” Chapter II, §18, Vt. Constitution
Apart from conforming to the mathematical standard of equal representation, districts also should be compact and contiguous. The towns comprising a district should share borders and otherwise be geographically proximate to one another. This criterion aims to foster effective representation by ensuring that representatives are accessible to the people they represent. The criterion also inhibits attempts at gerrymandering, or the creation of districts that ignore geographic boundaries to benefit one political party or another.
“In establishing representative districts, which shall afford equality of representation, the General Assembly shall seek to maintain geographical compactness and contiguity and to adhere to boundaries of counties and other existing political subdivisions.”
– Chapter II, §13, Vt. Constitution
“In establishing senatorial districts, which shall afford equality of representation, the General Assembly shall seek to maintain geographical compactness and contiguity and to adhere to boundaries of counties and other existing political subdivisions.”Chapter II, §18, Vt. Constitution
Following the requirement that districts should be compact and contiguous, the Constitution also dictates that districts should follow the existing boundaries of counties, towns and other political subdivisions. This criterion also seeks to promote effective representation by creating districts which consist of established, intact political communities.
“The representative and senatorial districts shall be formed consistent with the following policies insofar as practicable… (2) recognition and maintenance of patterns of geography, social interaction, trade, political ties and common interests;”
– 17 V.S.A. § 1903
This criterion which is found in state statute is another requirement with the goal of effective representation. While the constitutional directives related to compactness, contiguity, and the preservation of existing political subdivisions would seem to already accomplish this purpose, those criteria essentially focus on geographical conditions alone. This statutory criteria however explicitly requires that districts be drawn which take into account socioeconomic and cultural patterns. As a result, legislative districts ultimately should be communities bound by shared values and interests which thus can be given effective voice in Montpelier.
“In making a proposal [for dividing initial districts] under this section, the boards of civil authority shall consider (1) preservation of existing political subdivision lines; (2) recognition and maintenance of patterns of geography, social interaction, trade, political ties and common interests; (3) use of compact and contiguous territory; (4) incumbencies.”
– 17 V.S.A. § 1906b
Under state statute, only Boards of Civil Authority are directed to weigh incumbency when proposing the sub-division of initial, multi-member districts. Neither the Legislative Apportionment Board nor the General Assembly are required to take into account current office holders when devising initial districts. Due to the political nature of reapportionment, incumbency nevertheless remains a significant factor whether required or not.