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Law professor: Supreme Court should take on Groton town meeting seats

November 22, 2018

Groton — A Tennessee professor writing for the Michigan Law Review would love to see the U.S. Supreme Court hear a case on the apportionment of seats in the Groton Representative Town Meeting.

He knows it’s a long shot: the Supreme Court gets about 7,000 requests per year and typically hears less than 100.

But Paul Edelman, a law and mathematics professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, has grown frustrated by the questions left unanswered in the 2016 case Evenwel v. Abbott.

The Supreme Court ruled that states could draw legislative districts using total population, not just voting-eligible population, but it left open whether a jurisdiction could draw districts based on registered voters.

“This whole issue of whether you’re trying to equalize representation or equalize voters is a big, fundamental issue the court has dodged for a long period,” Edelman said.

He wasn’t aware of instances in which measures other than total population were used to draw districts — until he found Groton.

In his paper, “Is Groton the Next Evenwel?”, Edelman argues that the apportionment of Groton RTM seats “arguably meets the requirements of (one person, one vote) as applied to registered voter data but badly fails if total population is employed. Thus, it would make a good test case to resolve some of the open questions in Evenwel.”

The Michigan Law Review published his paper online Oct. 25, and Edelman previously had posted it on the preprint site SSRN on June 21.

Edelman said he emailed his original draft to the nine members of the Groton Town Council in June but didn’t hear back from anyone. Town Mayor Patrice Granatosky, Town Manager John Burt and RTM Moderator Syma Ebbin all recently declined to comment on the paper.

Edelman emailed The Day after the election. He said he “didn’t want to get into the middle of the charter amendment” debate, and he knew that his argument would’ve been immaterial had the charter revision question passed and the RTM been eliminated.

‘Gross in its violation of all previous holdings on one person, one vote’

So how did a Tennessee professor end up so consumed by Groton, and what did he learn?

Edelman has written about counties in New York that use the controversial method of weighted voting, and he began to wonder if there were other examples in the Northeast. He started looking at Connecticut municipalities, going off a list of chartered towns he found online.

His research also focuses on the “one person, one vote” (OPOV) doctrine, which the Supreme Court discussed in a series of court cases beginning in the 1960s, so even though he started reading the charters thinking about weighted voting, Groton’s method of RTM seat apportionment stuck out to him.

The original charter enacted in 1957 set the maximum number of RTM seats at 60; it didn’t specify why that number was selected. The number was reduced to 45 in the 1960s, following discussion in charter revision commissions that 60 people was too unwieldly and it was difficult for parties to find that many qualified candidates. The maximum remains 45 today.

Groton Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher said decisions on RTM apportionment have nothing to do with the transient population because of the submarine base.

Otherwise, the method of determining RTM seats has remained largely the same from 1957 to now: After every presidential election, the town divides the total number of electors — registered voters — by the maximum number of RTM members. For each of Groton’s districts, that number then is divided into the district’s number of electors to get the number of representatives for each district.

To find the percent deviation from what perfect representation would be, Edelman calculated the number of people per representative in each district.

He found a 31.96 percent deviation between the most underrepresented and most overrepresented district in 2013, and a 19.77 percent deviation in 2017, after redistricting.

By comparison, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 17 percent deviation in the Virginia state legislature in 1973 but struck down a 20 percent deviation in the North Dakota state legislature in 1975.

Edelman said it’s questionable whether a 19.77 percent deviation would be acceptable, but said that the deviation if Groton used total population, rather than just registered voters, “would be a clear violation of OPOV under any analysis.”

Using 2010 census data the Connecticut State Data Center provided, Edelman calculated a deviation of 184.7 percent in 2013 and at least 136.52 percent in 2017.

One caveat is that the accuracy of census data degrades over time, and another is that the 2017 data is incomplete, considering the redistricting meant that Edelman could not ascertain total population — based on 2010 census data — for Districts 1 or 7.

“By most measures, this is really gross in its violation of all previous holdings on one person, one vote,” Edelman said, noting that if someone in an underrepresented district wanted to file suit, “it would be a really easy thing to do.”

What about the other Connecticut towns with RTMs?

Groton is the only town in Connecticut with a town manager-town council-RTM form of government, but there are six other towns with a board of selectmen and RTM — some of which could also make good test cases, by Edelman’s standards. Edelman read some but not all of their charters.

RTM apportionment in Fairfield and Westport fits well into established case law: Each charter stipulates that districts shall be established by census data, and that “the population deviation from the largest to the smallest voting district shall not exceed 10 percent.” Edelman said that “looks like the gold standard.”

The Waterford town charter requires that each district elect one representative for each 550 electors residing in that district, and RTM apportionment in Branford also is based on the ratio of voters in each district.

In Darien, the RTM has 100 members representing the town’s six districts; the number from each district “is determined annually by a flexible formula based on elector apportionment.”

Representation in Greenwich, per its town charter, involves dividing the total number of electors in town by 230, the number of members of the body.

While Edelman looked only at Groton for his paper, he did deviation calculations for other towns this past week. When using estimates of total population, he found a 32 percent deviation in both Greenwich and Darien, much smaller than the deviation in Groton.

e.moser@theday.com

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