Opinion: Daily Journal

Now That’s a Legislature

BURLINGTON, VT — If all those self-styled “reformers” who support gutting the First Amendment through new regulations on political participation and fundraising were serious about transforming political campaigns, they would look to Vermont and New Hampshire for ideas.

Neither state has the kind of high-dollar, broadcast-based legislative campaigns that the interest groups complain about. But it’s not because they have repealed freedom of speech, as the Shays-Meehan bill now stalking through Congress would do. Instead, these states have ensured the health of grassroots, retail campaigning by reducing the number of people that individual legislators represent.

In Vermont, there are 150 members of the state house. Next door in New Hampshire, there are 400 members. North Carolina has 120. But remember how much smaller the New England states are. While there are about 67,000 North Carolinians in each house district, Vermont lawmakers represent only 4,000 people each. New Hampshire’s ratio is even smaller, at about 3,100 per district.

I visited the Vermont State House in Montpelier today and met with a group of House members in the legislative cafeteria. A couple had been in office for only a couple of terms, while others had spent 8 to 10 years in the body. To a person, they described their campaigns as primarily involving door-to-door visits, community gatherings, local newspaper coverage, and weekend forays into shopping centers, malls, post offices, and churches. They rarely raised and spent much money, because there was little to spend campaign dollars on. Broadcast advertising, except perhaps on a small local radio station (where it’s cheap), is far too expensive per voter. They use direct mail, but sparingly.

“Everybody [in my district] pretty much knows me, and I know a lot of them,” said one legislator, a crusty native Vermonter with a gravely voice. “They’ll either send me back or they won’t.”

Campaign-finance reformers often say they want to recreate a kind of low-dollar politics where handshakes and conversations replace attack ads and consultants. Many, frankly, are lying. They really want to hamstring politicians and political causes they don’t like, in favor of the ones they do. They are willing to trample on whatever individual liberties they need to in order to achieve this objective.

But the folks who really want to see retail politics return to North Carolina should consider a constitutional amendment to increase the number of members of the N.C. House (I’d keep the Senate at 50 members, clearly differentiating it as a more elite bunch representing large constituencies and thus offering something unique to the process).

What’s the magic number? How about averaging the size of the Vermont and New Hampshire districts? If each N.C. House member represented 3,600 people, that would yield a state legislature of 2,222 members. Sounds ridiculous until you consider that such an assembly couldn’t possible meet very often or very long — it would be too expensive and chaotic — so it couldn’t do much damage. Being a state legislator in such a situation wouldn’t be glamorous or generate a lot of perks and freebies.

If such a radical change is too much to contemplate, at least adopting the Connecticut ratio of 22,600 citizens per member would nearly triple the size of the N.C. House to 352 members. This might have the effect of reducing the danger of abusive gerrymandering (pretty much every small county, small city, or large town would have at least one representative) and making campaigns far less expensive and less biased in favor of incumbents. Members might serve on only one committee, where they could specialize in a certain area of interest and become truly expert.

Creating a real citizen legislature would mean dramatically increasing the number of members, reducing their individual responsibilities and powers, and limiting sessions to brief periods every year or two. Although the political class in North Carolina would find all this mind-boggling — they want to be, or work with, professional politicians instead of average folks doing a temporary civic duty — it seems to work pretty well in New England.