Spence: single-member House districts benefit minorities

By Shayne Spence

The tri-partisan Legislative Apportionment Board (LAB) voted this month to recommend a new map for legislative seats, which is required every ten years following the census, eliminating the use of multi-member House districts. 

The new map, should it ultimately be adopted, consists of 150 single seat districts, so every Vermonter will be represented by one and only one House member. This is a terrific step for a number of reasons, such as better accountability to voters, less expensive political campaigns, and greater overall equity, but a big one is this is a step towards erasing elements of historic, systemic racism in our election systems.

Shayne Spence

At the May 2021 meeting of the LAB, Vermont’s Racial Equity Director, Xusana Davis, and member of the Racial Equity Task Force, Brittney Larrabee testified about the unfortunate racial history behind multi-member districts and advocated for an all-single-member map. Davis and Larrabee recommended that the LAB, “modernize the criteria of the Reapportionment Commission to include racial and social equity as explicit considerations,” and supported their position with a link to a Michigan Law Review article from 1978, discussing how one method used in the past to dilute the votes of BIPOC and other minority populations was the creation of multi-member districts.  

One striking line from this article; “Multimember districts not only increase the difficulty of electing minority candidates, they also decrease the likelihood that the minority will be adequately represented by the successful white candidates”. 

Multi-member legislative districts are a gerrymandering tool, plain and simple. In the era of Jim Crow, they were used to join a majority Black district with a larger-majority White district to create one two-member majority-White district in which the White “majority” could elect both representatives. This trick can, of course, be used to disenfranchise any kind of minority population, such as rural interests vs. urban, or partisan affiliation, etc. This is why almost every other state in the Union has eliminated multi-member districts. Let us not be the last place left with this reminder of our racist past still on the books.

Vermonters in general seem to get the benefits of all single member districts too. The LAB put out a public survey that got 634 responses, with 75% saying they wanted all single member districts. The LAB listened and on a tri-partisan vote did the right thing. 

Unfortunately, the legislature itself will have the final say and rumors are already bubbling up that the majority party in Montpelier will not support the evolution to all single member districts. Why not? 88 out of 150 incumbent representatives and 27 out of 30 incumbent senators were elected in multi-member districts. Incumbent politicians love to preach “change” and sacrifice for the greater good, until it puts their re-election at risk. They are hoping this issue stays below most Vermonters’ radars. Let’s make sure it doesn’t! 

It’s all well and good for Vermont politicians to throw stones at legislators in other states for protecting antiquated election laws and traditions in places like Georgia and Texas, but how about we clean up our own glass house first. 

One way for ordinary citizens to amplify the message of Xusana Davis and the Racial Equity Task Force is to get involved with upcoming Board of Civil Authority (BCA) meetings.  Every Vermont Town and City has a BCA, made up of their elected Justices of the Peace, and those boards are asked to give input on the proposed recommendations.  Speaking to your local JPs, and relaying the message from Davis and the LAB in support of single-member districts, will go a long way towards convincing them of the importance of upholding these recommendations.   

In those conversations, remind them that when the LAB did a survey of Vermonters, over 75% of them said they preferred that all House districts are single-member districts.  You don’t see that type of overwhelming support of very many things in government – let’s capitalize on it and ensure that when the legislature approves a district map next spring, it is a map that reflects the wishes of the people of Vermont.   

It just so happens that doing so will remove one remaining vestige of systemic racism from our electoral system as well.  In the wake of nationwide calls for change in the way we handle racial discussions as a country, it seems step one is ensuring everyone can equitably access a seat at the table.

The author was a Republican candidate for the Vermont House in 2020, and now serves as a Justice of the Peace in Johnson.

Categories: Commentary

4 replies »

  1. I would like to respectfully reply to this commentary by shedding light into the the propaganda and conjecture employed by Ms. Xusana Davis in the name of proving system racism to a group of Essex High School students. I had the good fortune to view and listen to the presentation she gave to these students. This presentation was highly political, with the intent of influencing young people twords a specific political party/view. On one slide, Davis asked students if they knew who benefited most from Affirmative Action, on the presentation slide was an image of 3 white women. She then states “white women”. With precision, she leads the students to believe that this outcome is due to systemic racism. She offers no explanation and cites no resources or data.

    As we all know, Affiliation Action offers protections to all women in the workplace. I went to the 2020 census to understand more about why white women benefit most from Affirmative Action. The census data shows that there is no other possible outcome, as white woman make up about 32 percent of the U.S. workforce, while black women make up about 6.6 of the workforce, and Hispanic women about 7.6.

    I emailed the school board to share my findings and disgust at allowing such an unfactual and politically motivated presentation, which amounted to nothing more than brainwashing, to be shown to children. The school board informed me that they gave students a second opinion. Really, when has education become nothing more than a political gameshow where participants can blindly choose behind the propaganda behind door number one or door number 2.

  2. I think that this is approach to reapportionment in the House is proper. I still think that reapportioning the Senate so that each County has the same number of Senators is needed to address the disproportion of power granted to Chittenden County because of the population there as apposed to other counties. The people of Burlington should not have more say in both houses, and therefore control than say the people of Granby or Washington

  3. The Op/Ed by Shayne Spence is very New Normal.I do not intend to demean Shaynes character,but Racial Equity is very at best Racist!So is BIPOC,and these theories will and have divided our State and Nation.A survey of 634 people means nothing in a State with thousands of unheard people!In fact if anyone read our State and Federal Constitutions,God through our Constitution guarantees that all men and wemon of any color are created equal,and have a rights in the Constitution to life Liberty and and the pursuit of happiness through hard work,and not tear each other apart with mere mortal opinions!