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Six senators, one legislative district: Eastern states wrestle with moving away from multi-member districts

In September 2010, Channel 17 in Burlington, Vt., held a multi-candidate debate among aspirants for the state Senate in the local district. Then it held another one. And another. And another. But here’s the interesting part: No candidate appeared more than once. There were 16 different people running for the Senate in the Chittenden County district. If six Democrats, six Republicans and an assortment of third-party candidates had tried to crowd onto one stage, the result would have been chaos.

For Chittenden County, that wasn’t out of the ordinary. The reason is that the one district elects six senators — a full fifth of the membership of Vermont’s upper house — the most of any Senate district in the entire country.

It may just seem like one more Vermont eccentricity, but it’s not an esoteric issue. How many representatives a district elects can determine everything from how candidates campaign to who gets elected to how incumbents relate to their constituents.

For that reason, the trend in recent decades away from multi-member seats has been a major, if largely unacknowledged, change in the nature of American political representation. It has taken place largely because of federal protections for minority voters. But even in states without many racial and ethnic minorities, such as West Virginia and Vermont, single-memberism is taking hold now. Both those states have proposals under consideration that would end multi-member districts in the states’ lower houses.

It’s even possible that Channel 17 has hosted its last four-part debate: There’s serious talk of breaking up the Chittenden County Senate district, too. If that happens, it will be a sign that the multi-member way, which not too long ago was the dominant method of electing state legislators, may eventually be relegated to the pages of history.

New Hampshire’s experiment

Chittenden County and Vermont not withstanding, the best place to observe multi-member politics in action is just to the east, in New Hampshire. There, the state House has 400 seats, but it only has 103 districts because so many elect more than one member. In the past decade, individual districts for the New Hampshire House have elected as many as 14 members.

The abundance of large multi-member seats isn’t some quaint New Hampshire anachronism. It’s actually a new development. A decade ago, the Legislature couldn’t agree with the governor on a redistricting plan, which threw the redrawing of district lines to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The Court hired an expert — a Southerner, people in New Hampshire hasten to point out — who drew the lines. Most legislators hated the large multi-member seats he came up with. The Legislature even refused to appropriate money to pay him. But his design has turned the state into a ten-year experiment in multi-member representation.

One consequence of that experiment, people in New Hampshire say, is that the state has experienced dramatic swings in political power. In 2006, Democrats gained almost 90 seats in the New Hampshire House. In 2010, Republicans netted around 125. Under a single-member system many small places would be so reliably Republican or Democratic that they wouldn’t switch hands even in a political wave. But under the multi-member system, if a 10-member district goes from voting 55 percent Democratic to 55 percent Republican, it might tip from electing 10 Democrats to 10 Republicans.

The larger multi-member districts have made politics less personal and elections more expensive. Legislators who were used to reaching out to just over 3,000 people — the average size of a single-member seat in New Hampshire — suddenly were in districts with 10 times that many. Some actually had to seek campaign contributions for the first time.

All of this drove traditionalists crazy. The reason New Hampshire came to have the third-biggest representative body in the English-speaking world, after all, was so that even towns with only a few hundred people could have their own member of the New Hampshire House. Even before there was a United States, Secretary of State Bill Gardner says, King George III stirred anger by rejecting colonists’ demands that each town have a representative in the New Hampshire assembly. Today, with the multi-member seats, more towns are grouped together, meaning fewer towns are guaranteed their own legislator.

That, however, is about to change. In 2006, voters approved a constitutional amendment that will give each town its own representative so long as it has enough people to justify one. The large multi-member seats likely won’t exist. “The state itself said, ‘To hell with the court, we’re going back to the historic basis for elected representation in New Hampshire,’” says Paul Mirski, who chairs New Hampshire’s House Redistricting Committee.

Concentrating votes

Multi-member seats have been on the way out in other states, too, although not generally for New Hampshire’s idiosyncratic reasons. Fifty years ago, more than two-thirds of states had multi-member legislative districts for at least some seats. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, just 11 do.

The biggest reason why is that, at least in some circumstances, multi-member districts run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act. Multi-member systems, with their bigger districts, make it harder to create constituencies where minority groups are concentrated enough to elect candidates of their choice.

In a key 1986 decision, Thornburg v. Gingles, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned North Carolina’s multi-member legislative lines on the grounds that they discriminated against blacks. While that ruling and similar ones didn’t forbid multi-member systems categorically, they still had a major effect. “You see a big drop off from the 1970s to the 1980s,” says Tim Storey, senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It was kind of, ‘better safe than sorry.’”

Debating democracy

Even in Vermont, which is 95 percent white, Steve Hingtgen is worried about minority representation. It’s just that the minorities are working-class voters in wealthy areas or rural voters in urban areas or Republican voters in Democratic areas. “Larger districts in Vermont are a way for majorities to prevent regional minorities from winning seats,” says Hingtgen, a member of Vermont’s advisory Legislative Apportionment Board.

He proposed a plan that has won preliminary approval from the board to use only single-member districts for the Vermont House. The board also has approved a plan that breaks up the overstuffed Chittenden Senate district into two-member seats.

In Vermont, and in West Virginia as well, these proposals have prompted something rare: a debate about representation itself. Is it better that legislators have to appeal to a broad, diverse group of people, or should they represent a narrow, cohesive constituency? Are citizens better served by having a single representative who’s close to them or several different ones to whom they can voice concerns? While conventional redistricting politics is in play in these debates — critics say, for example, that the multi-member Chittenden Senate seat has benefited Democrats — the more serious philosophical questions are at least part of the conversation.

As in New Hampshire, many of these questions are colored in Vermont by the historical significance of towns. Before the principle of one-person, one-vote gained supremacy in the 1960s, every town had one and only one member in the Vermont House of Representatives, whether it had a few hundred people or many thousands.

It’s not obvious, though, that single-member districts would bring the state closer to the tradition of town-based representation. The trouble is that many towns don’t have the right population for exactly one or two or three House districts. One of the sacrifices of the single-member plan is that it divides more towns between districts than a multi-member alternative.

That’s one reason why, while there’s momentum for breaking up the Chittenden Senate district, no one, not even Hingtgen, expects the state to do away with multi-member House districts altogether. They may vanish completely one day, but that day won’t come in this decade. “What’s in favor of the status quo is that it’s the status quo,” says Tom Little, who leads Vermont’s advisory board. “Reapportionment has historically been an incremental process.”

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