With redistricting underway, citizens raise their voices about lack of representation
Cynthia Walter of Dover stands outside the Strafford County redistricting listening session in September asking for the committee to draw maps fairly. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Strafford County has a problem when it comes to representation and redistricting.
The county serves as the head of the dragon-shaped Executive Council District 2 – a visible example of how gerrymandering can “pack” like-minded voters, Democrats in this case, into a district that stretches across the state. But not all of the problems stemming from redistricting are easy to spot.
Towns and city wards with enough residents are supposed to have a House representative of their own. But there are four instances in Strafford County where they don’t. Instead of getting a dedicated representative to advocate for the particular issues impacting the community, these areas are lumped together with other neighboring communities and given lawmakers who represent the area at large. It’s not a problem just in Strafford County; statewide, there are 62 places where such constitutional violations show up.
Residents who live in these districts say it’s unfair and that the lawmakers charged with the redistricting process need to fix it when they redraw the maps.
Redistricting takes place every 10 years, after census data has been released, and is meant to reflect the state’s changing population. The Senate and House redistricting committees will be drawing new maps for the House, Senate, both congressional districts, the Executive Council, and the county commissioner districts. And they are hosting a series of 10 public listening sessions across the state as a part of the process.
At the redistricting meeting for Strafford County last week, residents hammered home the problems, starting with Strafford House District 17. The district, as it was drawn 10 years ago, includes Dover Wards 5 and 6 and Somersworth Ward 2, and shares three “at-large” representatives.
But residents say this arrangement deprives them of the representation they are constitutionally guaranteed and diminishes their voices.
“No one is speaking just for Somersworth,” said resident David Holt.
James Fieseher, a retired physician who lives in Dover Ward 5, described being put in the same district as Somersworth as “a shock.” The communities are in different school districts, and residents and state representatives agree there are other important differences that make the pairing problematic.
“Various issues that matter to Somersworth are not necessarily parallel with the ones that matter to Dover,” said Rep. Peter Bixby, one of the three representatives for the district.
And, Bixby said, the arrangement is a disadvantage for candidates from Somersworth, since voters in Dover wards outnumber those in Somersworth. He has more organic contact with the people he represents in Dover since he is in the community, he said, and it’s harder for him to know what is important to people in the Somersworth ward he represents. He believes it’s less likely that people will reach out to a representative they don’t know or see in their community.
“It just makes sense for people to be representing the communities that they’re part of,” he said.
Rep. Peter Schmidt, a Dover Democrat, agreed. “Somersworth had no representation,” he said during the Strafford County listening session last week. “That’s unfair. That’s wrong.”
Math is at least part of the reason lines get drawn in ways that don’t make sense to people who live within them. With New Hampshire’s latest census data putting the state population at nearly 1.38 million people, each state representative should, ideally, represent 3,444 people. It’s a simple equation where the state population is divided by the number of representatives. Unfortunately, towns and wards don’t always fit neatly into those numbers. Towns that don’t have enough residents to get their own representative are lumped together with other adjacent towns or wards. But even some towns that do have enough residents don’t get the representation the constitution promises.
Math isn’t the only reason for these arrangements that violate the constitution, and Phil Hatcher can prove it. Hatcher is a computer scientist who taught at UNH for 33 years and is now retired. He designed mapping software that can reduce the number of constitutional violations in Strafford County from four to just one.
“I’m not doing anything new or creative. I’m just using well-known computer science techniques to focus on minimizing the number of violations of the constitutional requirement that sufficiently sized towns should get their own representative,” Hatcher said.
The algorithm he designed looks at minimizing constitutional violations while also restraining what Hatcher calls the sea of possible solutions. That’s done by setting constraints on how big a given district can be.
What Hatcher has found is that there are anywhere between tens or even hundreds of possible solutions – which for him means it’s important to push back on the narrative that creating House districts is just a matter of doing the math. Instead, Hatcher says his maps show there are options and that selecting from among those options means establishing priorities.
“We would like to see public discussion of what criteria [the redistricting committee] is using to separate out the different possibilities,” Hatcher said.
But there is one tweak that Hatcher and others, including David Andrews of the Fair Maps Coalition and Brian Beihl of Open Democracy, have been pushing for: the alternative component method. The numbers are not going to work out perfectly with redistricting, and a standard deviation of 5 percent more or less than the ideal number of citizens per representative accounts for this. What Hatcher, Andrews, Beihl, and others are advocating for is that this standard deviation be applied earlier in the process – to the 3,444 number – so that a town with almost the right number of people could have their own dedicated representative rather than getting grouped with surrounding communities.
“Things are still in flux, but we believe we can dramatically reduce the number of towns that are not properly represented whether they let us use the alternative method or not, actually,” Hatcher said. “This is the one thing the public understands and those towns that don’t have their own dedicated rep, they know that and they’re not happy about it.”
And while this kind of redistricting problem doesn’t necessarily look like gerrymandering on a map, Beihl said there can still be partisan motives at play.
“There are also situations where towns were districted together that shouldn’t have been, and it wasn’t mathematically necessary,” Beihl said. “Those are the ones that appear to have been done in 2011 for partisan reasons.”
He cited the placement of Pelham and Hudson into one district as an example.
“Pelham is a purple town, Hudson is a red town, and by combining those two towns that makes Pelham a red town,” Beihl said. “So there were games being played with this.”
On Thursday, the full House redistricting committee will meet for a work session at 10 a.m. A public listening session for Hillsborough County that had been scheduled on Thursday at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester was canceled after an Executive Council meeting at the same location was canceled due to the behavior of angry protesters.
“Working with NHIOP, we determined it would be best to relocate this public meeting to a different venue,” a spokesperson for the House of Representatives said in an email on Wednesday afternoon.
Five additional listening sessions are scheduled through mid-October so far. The Rockingham County listening session is scheduled for Oct. 5 at the superior court in Brentwood. On Oct. 7, a listening session for Coos County is scheduled at the superior court in Lancaster. Listening sessions for Cheshire, Sullivan, and Carroll counties have been scheduled for the week of Oct. 11. They will be held on the 12th, 13th, and 14th, respectively.
All scheduled listening sessions start at 6 p.m., and the schedule is available on the House redistricting committee website. A listening session for Belknap County had not been scheduled at the time of this article’s publication.
Public input at the listening sessions so far has underscored the need for another series of meetings after maps are drawn to provide an opportunity for public input on the proposals. Neither the House nor Senate special redistricting committees have announced a plan for a second round of listening sessions. The deadline for the House committee to submit drafts is Nov. 18.
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