At the end of the last thrilling episode the Republic of Vermont joined the United States in 1791. Having defeated, or at least bribed, its arch-enemies New York and New Hampshire the Freemen[1] of Vermont had a fiercely independent attitude that lasted a long time. For example, when a massive flood hit Vermont in 1927 the state turned down the offer of federal assistance.[2]

Now the balloters[3] of Vermont regularly return Bernie Sanders to the U.S. Senate and the 14th star is considered one of the bluest of the constellation. What happened?

Originally the unit of organization in Vermont was the town. Towns were responsible for all roads inside town borders, for the care of the poor, and for the education of the children. These things are expensive particularly when your town’s economy is a few farms and a dry goods store, has a major road going through the middle, and the poor people keep having kids. Seductive offers of state assistance started immediately. “For a modest tax, paid by all drivers in the state, the state will assume responsibility for that high-maintenance road!” The towns resisted but the ratchet goes only one way. The State Highway System was created in 1931, the Social Welfare Act was passed in 1967, and with Act 60 the state took control of the school property tax in 1997.

Another factor is the reverse Free State Movement that happened in the 1970’s. Tens of thousands of literal hippies moved to Vermont and because the state’s population was so small the like-minded influx had a real effect. I met one of these 15 years ago when he was in his 90’s. He was still a fire-breathing leftist.

But the biggest factor is the change in the composition of Vermont’s legislature. Originally each town sent a representative to the House and each county sent a representative to the Senate. This gave the state’s many small rural towns power in the House over the few populous rich towns and gave the state its original governmental character. It all changed with the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case Reynolds vs. Sims when it was decided that it was unconstitutional for state representatives to be elected by region, they had to be elected by population.[4]

So Vermont now has 109 House districts and 16 Senate districts each with, you’d think, the same number of people. But the Vermont legislature has its own interpretation of the decision. If town boundaries and populations make it too difficult to create single-member districts of equal population then multiple-member districts can be created. I live in a two-member House district composed of four towns and a two-member Senate district composed of 12 towns.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision was supposed to enforce the ideal of one-man one-vote. But I can vote for two Representatives and Senators while other people can vote for only one. Of course my districts represent twice as many people as those of a single-member district and it really isn’t possible to create contiguous single-member districts that are fair[5] so one might conclude that the Vermont legislature is just trying to do its best.

One would be wrong because there are also gratuitous multiple-member Senate districts. These were originally created because it was considered anti-community to break up the populous rich towns into chunks. While some people can vote for a single Senator other people can vote for three.

The three-member Senate districts are rich and urban.[6] Vermont has the same rural-conservative/urban-progressive political split as other states.[7] The result is a complete reversal of the old one-Representative-per-town power structure with a few progressive towns now dominating the Senate.[8] The current Democratic-Progressive/Republican ratio is 23 to 7.

During the redistricting required by the 2020 census it was proposed that Senate districts all be single-member. The proposal failed.

So with all this good leadership, why isn’t Vermont a socialist utopia? One reason is that Vermont frequently elects a Republican[9] governor as is currently the case. This moderates some of the nonsense coming from the legislature. But the main reason is that there simply isn’t enough other people’s money to jumpstart the process. There are no lucrative industries to nationalize. There are no money printers create prosperity out of nothing. Vermont is a poor state and no amount of wishful thinking on the part of the legislature can change that.

Not that the legislature hasn’t tried. In 2011 Vermont passed the country’s first Single Payer law. The law is still on the books but implementation has been delayed until the problem of financing it can be solved. The initially proposed 11.5% payroll tax and 9.5% additional income tax proved to be unpopular and the Democratic governor who signed the bill declined to run again when his term was up.[10]

Vermont has high levels of regulation and high taxes across the board but the people in the rural areas are sane and the state is simply too poor to inflict catastrophic damage. In my opinion it’s a stable situation and that’s what I want at this point in my life.


[1] Historically voters in Vermont were required to take the Freeman’s Oath:

You solemnly swear (or affirm) that whenever you give your vote or suffrage, touching any matter that concerns the state of Vermont, you will do it so as in your conscience you shall judge will most conduce to the best good of the same, as established by the Constitution, without fear or favor of any man.

Mine was administered by the Town Clerk. In 2007 the law was changed so that the oath could be self-administered.

[2] But because so many bridges needed to be rebuilt the power of the State Highway Department was significantly increased.

[3] I’m trying to find a more descriptive word for what actually goes on these days.

[4] The inconsistency with the U.S. Senate is obvious.

[5] For the House. It’s possible for the Senate.

[6] Vermont is a poor rural state. The words “rich” and “urban” are relative.

[7] In my town in 2020 Trump beat Biden 478-434. Jorgensen came in third with 8.

[8] To be fair Republicans are also outnumbered in the House 104-46.

[9] Vermont Republicans are like middle-of-the-road Democrats elsewhere.

[10] Vermont Governors serve a two-year term and are almost always reelected.