By Kayla Santiago, Community News Service
With upcoming reapportionment proposals about to create new political lines in Vermont towns and cities, Steve Terry, a longtime Vermont political observer and former journalist took a look back at the history of apportionment in Vermont.
Steve Terry was a reporter with a focus on government policy for most of his career. Terry had a focus on Vermont politics before spending time in Washington D.C. He covered apportionment in Vermont at its start.
For much of its history, Vermont had a representative for nearly each city and town. This created a problem under the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires, in part, equal political power for citizens.
Vermont’s representatives were then elected by wildly different constituencies, including, for instance, a representative from Stratton with a 38-person constituency.
“1965 that was the year the Vermont house violated the Fourteenth Amendment, if fair apportionment was not achieved by June 30, 1965, it would have to be done by a federal court order,” Terry said.
The Vermont House went from 246 to 150 members that year, Terry said, a number that remains today.
This apportionment led Vermont’s political landscape to change into what it is today, he said. He linked apportionment to Vermont’s modern liberal reputation.
“My view is that many years later, the real spark for a whole host of posts, aggressive legislation and changes had to do with reapportionment,” he said.
This redrawing of political lines centralized many local community roles and changed the local government’s involvement in many rural Vermont towns. However, these changes did not stop small communities from being tight-knit.
An example of these changes was the abolishment of the previous title of “overseer of the poor,” Terry said.
“There was once an overseer of the poor. They would often send underprivileged people off to a ‘poor farm.’ This job was abolished and handed this local responsibility to the state legislature,” Terry said.
Terry believes that most issues observers see now will end up being inconsequential once the new political map is set.
Vermont’s ability to see beyond political parties is unique, Terry said. Candidates who run for office run on platforms for the community and are elected based on their knowledge and desire to push villages, towns, and cities forward, not to push a specific agenda, he said.
“I think there’s still a strong sense of community in Vermont. By that, I mean the whole town or that you live in, and in some cases, the region,” Terry said.
Terry cited the geographical divisions of Southern Vermont as a past and potential future obstacle. The physical barriers posed by the Green Mountains create differences in needs and opinions between communities — if districts are drawn without considering the preexisting geographical barriers, it may be challenging to come to decisions that benefit one side of a mountain and the other.
“Generally speaking, a town that’s divided by a mountain with its neighbor is not going to be as strong as it was before,” Terry said.
It is possible to make cohesive decisions and come to productive compromises with exemplary leadership and patience, but it is not easy, he said.