What will the new census data mean for the state’s two congressional districts?

By: - August 19, 2021 3:45 am
A web page for the 2020 Census

New Hampshire’s two congressional districts both grew over the past years. But the 1st Congressional District grew more than the 2nd District. (U.S. Census Bureau)

When the U.S. Census Bureau released raw data for New Hampshire’s once-in-a-decade count, the numbers revealed a slowly diversifying state, whose population is growing in the Seacoast area but shrinking in the north and west. 

But the numbers also set the stage for a redistricting effort, one that could affect the state’s congressional representation. 

According to an aggregate of town-by-town population counts, New Hampshire’s two congressional districts both grew over the past years. But the 1st Congressional District grew more than the 2nd District. 

The 1st District, which encompasses the southeast corner of the state and ranges from Manchester and Exeter to Conway, added 39,504 people. The 2nd District, which includes all of Coos County and the western half of the state, added just 21,552.

The difference in growth rates between the two districts might appear minimal: 6 percent for the 1st District and 3.27 percent for the 2nd District. But that discrepancy means that lawmakers will need to adjust the congressional district lines, shrinking the first in order to make the second as close in population as possible. 

And it could create an opportunity for Republican lawmakers looking to re-carve the map in their favor. 

“Given the disparity between the two districts, there’s definitely a need to redistrict,” said Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “The status quo can’t be the default.”

Which towns they choose to move could determine how strongly either district leans to one party.

So far, that step is a ways off. Though the House Special Committee on Redistricting has met twice so far this year, it still hasn’t laid out a clear schedule for how it will conduct its meetings, let alone how the redistricting process will work for the committee. 

The committee plans to hold meetings throughout the state to hear from constituents, but those plans have not been finalized either.

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Griffin, a Goffstown Republican, did not respond to a request for comment on the committee’s plans.

But the behind-the-scenes work of drawing up potential maps can theoretically begin now. With this month’s release of the census data – which was presented in “legacy format” and requires special software to interpret it – political parties, organizations, and individuals can begin using it to draw their own maps, whether they share them publicly or not.

Since January, Republicans have controlled the state Senate, House, and governor’s office, giving them full control over the redistricting process. But in public statements, party leadership has sent mixed signals over how to use that power. 

In January, Republican Party Chairman Steve Stepanek raised eyebrows with a statement that seemed to suggest the party would seek to change the maps in its favor.

“Because of this we control redistricting,” he said at the party’s annual convention, speaking on the flips in the State House in 2020. “I can stand here today and guarantee you that we will send a conservative Republican to Washington, D.C., as a congressperson in 2022.”

The comments drew outrage from Democrats, who said that Stepanek had admitted to a strategy that violated the point of redrawing the legislative map every 10 years. 

Six months later, Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said he would veto any map that is obviously tilted or gerrymandered. 

“Absolutely, absolutely I’d veto,” he told WMUR in July. “If it doesn’t pass the smell test and it looks like gerrymandering districts, of course, I’m going to veto that.”

Republicans controlled the Legislature during the last redistricting period in 2011 as well. But this time, certain differences may change the political strategy, Scala said.

In 2011, two Republicans controlled the two congressional seats: Frank Guinta in the 1st District and Charlie Bass in the 2nd District. That meant that when Republicans drew the district boundary lines, they had the incentive to keep both incumbents in office. If they drew the lines so that the 1st District became a safe seat, they could lose the 2nd District to Democrats, Scala noted.

“They could have taken those (Massachusetts) border towns out of Charlie Bass’s district and given them to Frank Guinta’s district,” Scala said. “But because they were both Republican incumbents, Bass obviously didn’t want to go along with that.” 

This time around, with two Democrats sitting in both districts, the Republican Party no longer has the motivation to keep both seats competitive, Scala argued. And because Democrat Annie Kuster has kept a substantial hold over the 2nd District since 2014, while the 1st District has remained fiercely competitive in recent elections, Republicans could have more to gain by carving out a safe seat in the latter district while letting Democrats control the former one.

“You’re freed up from worrying about what incumbents think because the incumbents are all in the other party,” Scala said. “However, do you make the calculation and basically give up on the 2nd District?”

That tactic is not a given, Scala noted. Republicans could try to find a way to keep both seats competitive while still giving the 1st District a slight boost, Scala added. 

Whatever happens will be easy to analyze. Unlike other states, whose multiple congressional districts span a mix of dispersed rural and close-knit urban areas, New Hampshire’s two districts mean that there is no room for nuance; any actions taken by the Legislature to shape one district will immediately affect the other.

“It becomes more of a zero-sum game,” Scala said. That means that Republicans looking to give the party an edge will likely need to do so cautiously. 

Still, Scala is not sure how much the state Republican Party might suffer politically if it were to enact a slanted map. While awareness of gerrymandering has increased in recent years, after the 2011 redistricting process saw legislatures across the country draw a number of partisan maps, it is unclear whether it translates into a vote-driving issue in New Hampshire.

“I’m skeptical that the general public is going to get into a hue and cry about redistricting,” Scala said. “Is there some subgroup of citizens who are concerned about redistricting? Yes. But I think it’s a pretty small group, and I think it’s a pretty elite group.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to serve as a minority voice to keep the districts competitive.

“I think that’s served us well over the last 10 years: having congressional districts that are relatively neutral in terms of partisanship,” said Rep. Matt Wilhelm, a Manchester Democrat serving on the special committee.

Wilhelm insisted that Democrats would push for whatever redistricting map was most balanced and most competitive. The caucus does not currently plan to put forward maps intended to benefit their own candidates, he said.

But he added that with Republicans in control of the committee, Democrats are at this point primarily pushing for access and transparency. Republicans have rebuffed requests to allow one of the committee members, Rep. David Cote, to participate remotely. Cote, a Nashua Democrat and the former chairman of the House Election Law Committee, is immunocompromised and is not able to attend the meetings in person. 

And Democrats say that because the committee has not agreed to a roadmap for the next few months of meetings, it has also not made the software available to committee members to begin drawing the districts themselves. 

Some of those concerns might be ironed out at the committee’s next meeting on Aug. 25. 

“I think there’s just a lot of concern – we just want to make sure that there’s a fair and transparent and accessible process as we move forward,” Wilhelm said.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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