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)
The New Hampshire House last week approved the Republican-backed plans for redistricting the congressional, House of Representatives, and county commissioner districts.
Nonpartisan watchdog groups have decried the congressional maps for gerrymandering: making the 1st Congressional District more friendly to Republicans and the 2nd District more firmly Democratic. And criticism has also been leveled at the new House districts as approved, after citizens urged lawmakers to abide by the New Hampshire Constitution’s requirement that each town with sufficient population, or 3,444 residents, be given its own district. Fifty-six eligible towns didn’t get one in the maps passed by the House last week. House Republicans have defended their maps, saying they meet all constitutional requirements.
The congressional district map would move Republican strongholds in the south of the state into the 1st District, while Seacoast cities like Durham, Dover, and Portsmouth would become part of the 2nd District.
At a series of listening sessions held across the state in the fall, citizens asked lawmakers to ensure the process was fair and transparent. They urged lawmakers to create maps that were free of gerrymandering (maps that give partisan advantage to one party over another). These maps are problematic, Granite Staters told lawmakers repeatedly, because they allow politicians to choose their voters rather than the other way around.
“The districts you are drawing are not your districts, they’re our districts,” Paul Phillips of Plymouth told the redistricting committees during a listening session in Grafton County.
“Make sure there’s not even the slightest suspicion of any gerrymandering,” said Steven Borne of Rye at the Rockingham session.
“My town is required to have its own representative district, which we have been robbed of for the past decade,” Gail Kinney of Canaan told lawmakers at a Grafton County listening session. In 2006, a provision was added to the New Hampshire Constitution to give each eligible town a dedicated representative; in spite of that requirement, 72 eligible towns did not receive one when redistricting happened 10 years ago.
The Republican-backed maps passed the House on Wednesday with only a small margin, and did not win the support of all House Republicans. Rep. Dan Wolf, a Merrimack Republican, voted against the majority congressional map he saw as overly partisan. “When somebody stands up and makes a statement guaranteeing this district to be a Republican district, now I can’t support that,” he said in an interview after the vote. “I like competitive districts.”
The congressional maps passed in a 186-164 vote, but only after a motion to table the bill was narrowly defeated; Speaker of the House Sherman Packard cast the deciding vote, resulting in a 179-179 tie and thus blocking the motion.
Votes on House districts were nearly as close. After barely overcoming another tabling motion (177-178), lawmakers passed the Republican proposal, 186-168.
Stewartstown Republican Rep. Dennis Thompson voiced concern about how the proposed House districts would affect Coos County. He voted against the majority plan, which he said would not be in the interest of his constituents. It would create a sprawling, cumbersome district where it would be harder for North Country residents to make their voices heard in Concord, Thompson said in an interview.
He and other North Country residents have spoken about the disconnect between that part of the state and the state government that’s meant to represent it.
“I ran for the office to service a constituency that I thought had been poorly serviced in the past,” he said. Thompson said he doesn’t believe the majority plan would help to improve that status quo, but would actually make it worse.
Citizens in the North Country had echoed these concerns during listening sessions. But independent onlookers like Olivia Zink, executive director at the Open Democracy Action, said that while holding listening sessions was a step in the right direction, most of the input provided to lawmakers didn’t end up in the bills the House passed last week.
“When you look at the process, yes there were things they did this year that they didn’t do 10 years ago, like allow for a public hearing. But did they take any of the public’s input into the final consideration? No,” she said.
The House maps will go before the Senate, where further amendments can be introduced.
And on Monday, Jan. 10, the Senate will hold a hearing to take public input on the maps they have drafted for Senate and Executive Council districts. The hearing will begin at 1 p.m. in Representatives Hall and is scheduled to last three hours.
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