House Republicans stand by proposed overhaul of state’s congressional districts

By: - November 4, 2021 7:06 pm
A proposed map of the state's congressional districts

Since 1883, lawmakers have moved a total of 22 towns between the districts, according to Open Democracy Action. Under the proposed map, shown above, 75 towns would be transferred. (Screenshot)

Republicans on New Hampshire’s House Redistricting Committee stood by a proposal Thursday to dramatically reshape the state’s two congressional districts, batting back concerns from Democrats that the draft map would make congressional campaigns less competitive. 

Over a 40-minute discussion session, Democratic representatives challenged Republicans over the unusual shape of the proposed map, which would wrap a claw-shaped district favoring Democrats around a clumped district favoring Republicans.

Some Republican representatives said the new map would help shore up certain towns along the Massachusetts border. Others said that they hadn’t been part of the map-drawing process, but that they supported the draft map. 

And one, Rep. Bob Lynn, cut through the debate with a blunt statement.

“If your question is: Were political considerations something that were in the mix? Of course they were,” said Lynn, a Windham Republican and the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. 

Lynn added: “This is a political process, as the Supreme Court has said repeatedly, both the New Hampshire Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. This is a political process. That’s why it’s done by the Legislature. So was that something that was taken into account? Of course it was.” 

Map of current districts
New Hampshire’s current map of the congressional districts. (Screenshot)

The remarks came at the start of what is likely to be a pitched political battle as lawmakers in both parties wrangle over how to draw fair congressional maps – and what fairness means in the first place. 

The Republicans’ map, released Wednesday night, would transfer a number of key Republican-leaning towns that are currently in the 2nd Congressional District – the western district represented by Annie Kuster – into the 1st Congressional District, represented by Chris Pappas. 

Those towns include Hudson, Salem, and Windham, three heavily Republican-leaning areas. The liberal strongholds of Dover and Durham would be moved into the 2nd Congressional District. 

The result, critics say, is two congressional districts that are more partisan than they are now, based on historical voting patterns. Under the proposal, the 2nd Congressional District would lean heavily Democratic – voting 17.3 percent more Democratic than the state overall – and the 1st Congressional District would slightly favor Republicans, voting 1.8 percent more Republican than the state overall, according to Open Democracy Action, a group advocating against gerrymandering.

The proposed map would move 365,703 people in total from one district to another, the group added. 

And the plan would be a major historical shift. The current map has scarcely changed since 1883; in the 138 years since then, lawmakers have moved a total of 22 towns between the districts, according to Open Democracy Action. Under the proposed plan, 75 towns would be transferred in one year, or 25 percent of all towns in the state. 

The release of the Republican proposal is the first step in a process. That map and additional maps proposed by the committee to apportion New Hampshire’s 400 House seats will be up for a hearing next Tuesday. The maps must be approved by the House. 

But Democrats and fair-voting advocates have already levied charges of gerrymandering, arguing the new map is designed to split the two districts among Republican and Democratic voters.

Some Republicans have been open about a long-term strategy. In comments in January, Republican Party Chairman Steve Stepanek argued the party’s newly won majorities in the state House and Senate would give them an opportunity to change the congressional maps in their favor.

Proposed Republican congressional map
A proposed map of New Hampshire’s two congressional districts, released Nov. 3. (Screenshot)

“Because of this we control redistricting,” he said, according to WMUR. “I can stand here today and guarantee you that we will send a conservative Republican to Washington, D.C., as a congressperson in 2022.”

But speaking Thursday, Republican members on the committee argued the newly proposed map was driven by geographic concerns, not political ones. The unusual looking map is designed to bring together six towns south of Manchester: Hudson, Windham, Litchfield, Pelham, Salem, and Atkinson, Rep. Ross Berry said. 

The idea is to join together the “southern tier” of New Hampshire towns, which are separated under the current map, said Berry, a Manchester Republican. 

But grouping those towns into the 1st Congressional District would cause the population for that district to swell, Berry said, necessitating the transfer of other towns into the 2nd Congressional District. That transfer included the narrow band of towns near the Maine border, such as Dover and Durham, he said. 

Nashua, a traditionally Democratic-voting city, was excluded from that list of towns grouped into the 1st Congressional District because of its population, Berry added. 

The proposed districts clear the constraints set out by the state constitution, Berry noted. 

“It meets the constitutional requirements of one man, one vote,” Berry said. “It meets the constitutional requirements for the state of New Hampshire: It is perfectly contiguous. So that is the map.”

In a question-and-answer period, Democrats noted that the new claw-shaped district would require the representative of the 2nd Congressional District to drive through much of the 1st Congressional District in order to get from Durham to Keene. 

Republicans countered that the current 1st Congressional District, which zigzags along its western edge, also requires people driving north to south to travel in and out of their districts.

And at several turns, Democrats argued for keeping the current maps.

“Can you tell me why we don’t adopt the principle of, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat said. 

“I wanted to see the rest of the southern tier put back together,” Berry responded. “I consider that broken.”

Berry’s goal – to connect the towns along the Massachusetts border – was voiced by other members of the Republican caucus Thursday. 

“I’d like to stop picking on the words and just accept (Rep. Berry’s) argument for which communities he wanted to put back together,” said Rep. Steven Smith, a Charlestown Republican. 

Other Republican members, including Chairwoman Barbara Griffin, deferred to Berry in comments about the map. 

In an interview shortly after the meeting, Rep. Carol McGuire, an Epsom Republican, said Berry had taken the lead on drawing the congressional maps, adding that the rest of the Republican caucus had accepted the rationale. 

“He had one and he presented it with a good reason for doing it, and we said OK,” McGuire said. “… We agreed the map he came up with was reasonable.” 

Democrats on the committee, meanwhile, presented an alternative map Thursday that does not make major changes to the district lines. 

In the 10 years since the 2010 redistricting, the 1st Congressional District has grown to have 18,000 more people than the 2nd Congressional District. The Democratic proposal would move one town – Hampstead, whose 2020 population is 8,998 – into the 2nd Congressional District, balancing out that discrepancy with a difference of only 51 people. 

Democrats argued their map continues an appropriate status quo.

“This proposed map continues to keep both districts competitive and continues with the long history of not making changes in the districts, other than balancing population,” said Rep. Matt Wilhelm, a Manchester Democrat. 

It is unclear how – or whether – Republican Gov. Chris Sununu might weigh in on the process. In an interview with WMUR in July, Sununu said he would veto a redistricting proposal “if it doesn’t pass the smell test and it looks like gerrymandering districts.” 

On Thursday, Sununu kept his reaction under wraps but hinted that the maps could change over time. 

“This is the first round of maps that the public is seeing, and there are still many steps left in this democratic process,” Sununu said. “Like many Granite Staters, I will look closely at these proposals and await further revisions as the legislative process moves forward.” 

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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.