The challenge of redistricting in rural New Hampshire

By: - October 18, 2021 5:42 am
People hold signs in support of fair redistricting maps

People urging lawmakers to draw fair redistricting maps hold signs outside of the State House late last month. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

There’s a lot of things one might glean from living out of a camper van and traveling around the country for a year and a half. For Chichester native Dave Andrews, the main takeaway was that the political system in the United States is flawed. And by the time the trip was over, he had figured out how he was going to try to fix it.

The problem Andrews spotted was a disconnect between the people he met during his trip – people from all over the political spectrum who were considerate, kind, and well-intentioned – and how they were being represented by politicians. So in June, he started working as a data analyst fellow for the Redistricting Data Hub, a nonpartisan organization that hosts redistricting data for free.

“I kept asking myself why, if everyone I met all across the country are great people, why is the country in the kind of state that it is?” he said. “I decided that it was kind of a flaw in our democracy with redistricting, gerrymandering, and voting rights.”

Every 10 years, voting districts are redrawn to reflect how the population has changed. Gerrymandering – when maps are drawn not to better represent communities on the ground but to make it easier for one party or another to win elections – is a frequent issue in the redistricting process. Recent efforts by lawmakers to address gerrymandering and support voting rights by creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission have been unsuccessful, including a pair of vetoes by Gov. Chris Sununu.

Andrews said unfair maps create minority rule, where the party that’s in control hasn’t actually received the most votes.

“Redistricting is the foundation of our democracy in that if more people vote for a certain party, that party should be in control of our state and/or country,” he said.

Perhaps nowhere in the state is the divide between the people and the political system felt more acutely than the North Country. Many residents in the most rural part of the state say the disconnect is palpable, and they want the redistricting process to close the gap.

“One of the things I will note is the thing that I’ve seen over and over in my experience: Not one of you is north of Exit 20. Your worlds revolve around the populated area of the state, whereas our worlds are very small,” Bristol resident Susan Duncan told the redistricting committee during a Grafton County listening session, one of the 10 sessions the committee is hosting in each county to gather public input throughout the state.

Duncan, who worked as a legislative aide for the state Senate for over 20 years, had a clear message: “We are not equal in the North Country, and we would very much like to be equal.”

She said the region north of Interstate 93’s Exit 20 was often called the “Do Nothing Zone,” or the DNZ for short, “because you had to fight like the dickens to get anything to happen” there.

“The areas up here are huge,” Duncan said. “They are big and it takes a long time to get from point A to point B and do the job that many of you are blessed enough to do in a visit at the mall or going to the pizza place and seeing 35 constituents.”

One tenet of fair redistricting is to create districts that are compact, which could go some way toward addressing the imbalance Duncan describes. But the state constitution also lays out some constraints, such as the fact that each representative is supposed to represent about the same number of people. Because fewer people live in the North Country, they have proportionately fewer representatives. The lower population density also means representatives have to drive long distances to reach their constituents.  

Andrews said addressing the imbalance isn’t impossible but it would likely mean a constitutional change –  such as allowing for a dedicated county representative, where each of the state’s 10 counties would have a lawmaker representing them at the State House. Andrews likened this to each state getting two representatives to the U.S. Senate.

In some ways that dynamic may become more acute after this round of redistricting. The population of the North Country has actually decreased by 5 percent in the past 10 years. Coos County is one of only three counties in the state to lose population, a change linked to the decline of the region’s forestry and paper industries. That means that while Coos County used to have 10 representatives in the State House, this time around it will have only nine.

“It’s worrisome to go from 10 representatives out of 400 down to nine,” said Rep. Edith Tucker, a Randolph Democrat.

Tucker said the decline in population is pushing the region to find ways to keep young people from moving away. 

“There is tremendous worry about the future,” she said.

While there are shared concerns throughout the North Country, some representatives pushed back on the idea that the region is all the same. And understanding the way that communities – even those that are geographically proximate – differ is a big part of drawing maps that actually serve the specific concerns of each constituency. 

That’s what Canaan Town Administrator Michael Samson was pushing for at the Grafton County listening session.

Samson, who has been working in town government and local politics for 55 years, said: “I go back long enough so I remember the time when people gathered in communities, in the state government, primarily for problem-solving. It was not partisan.”

Canaan has a lot of problems that Samson is constantly working to solve, involving water, sewage, the way the education funding formula “cripples” the tax rate, zoning, and more. But the town doesn’t have a dedicated voice to address those issues at the state level because it is one of 62 towns that qualified for a dedicated representative in the last round of redistricting but didn’t get one.

Instead, there are two representatives from Wentworth who represent Canaan – but residents say that’s not a good match because the towns are so dissimilar. They aren’t in the same watershed and don’t share churches or health care facilities, said former state representative Charles Townsend, who lives in Canaan.

“Please give us a voice so we can be part of the dialogue that will solve problems,” Samson said.

That is close to the vision for redistricting that Andrews, the mapmaker, has, too.

“The vision is that we get reps who are more in tune with their communities,” he said. Those representatives will then be better positioned to solve what’s going wrong in the community. The way Andrews sees it, the more connected representatives are to their communities, the better.  

So far, the organization Andrews is working with to draw maps, called the Fair Maps Coalition, has been trying to accomplish that by considering what are called communities of interest – things like school districts, water districts, and public health regions – when they draw maps.

“Communities of interest can be any cultural, financial, geographic, historic, or mutual benefit which connects towns together,” according to the Map-a-Thon project, which was launched in May by Open Democracy, the Kent Street Coalition, Granite State Progress, and the League of Women Voters. 

Last Tuesday, the Map-a-Thon maps drawn for the Executive Council, state Senate, and Congress were released, including the criteria used to make them. Andrews said the House and Senate redistricting committees should do the same.

“Ideally, our redistricting committee would have already released their criteria. This could have been done before the census even came out,” he said. “They could have been hard at work, talking to people in the state about what criteria was important to them, what communities of interest were important to them.”

But that hasn’t happened, and now, Andrews said, it’s almost too late to incorporate this kind of information into the mapping process, with just a little over a month before the House maps are due.

The House Special Redistricting Committee has a Nov. 18 deadline to draft the maps. Listening sessions are scheduled for Hillsborough County at the Goffstown High School on Monday at 6 p.m. and for Belknap County at the Belknap Mill-Rose Chertok Gallery on Tuesday at 6 p.m. 

On Wednesday, the House Special Redistricting Committee will meet at the Legislative Office Building at 10 a.m. for a full committee work session. 

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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