LACONIA — Restore a fair and nonpartisan process for determining voting districts, and end the gerrymandering that has created districts with towns that have no common interests. That was the message residents had for the the House Special Committee on Redistricting at a public hearing on Oct. 19 at the Belknap Mill.
Of particular concern were the cases of Meredith and Gilford, sharing representation because they are contiguous towns on the map but which are separated by Lake Winnipesaukee.
Tony Carita of Meredith commented, “For people running for state rep, for them to get to a common border, they’d have to paddle canoes out into the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee. If you actually wanted to drive from Meredith to Gilford, it’s a 12-mile drive.”
Meredith is among a number of communities that passed town meeting resolutions that urged the state legislature to “carry out the redistricting in a fair and transparent way through public meetings, not to favor a particular political party, to include communities of interest, and to minimize multi-seat districts.”
The Coalition For Open Democracy, an advocacy group promoting political equality, provided the templates for the warrant articles, pointing out that 62 towns that were eligible for their own House district were denied it in the 2011 redistricting process. Senate districts crossed county lines and divided “communities of interest” that shared high schools or public health regions. Executive Council District 2 snakes from the Vermont to the Maine border.
The Special Committee on Redistricting is charged with adjusting the boundaries of congressional, executive council, state senate, state representative, county commissioner, and state party delegate districts based on the 2020 census. It has been meeting at locations in each county of the state to take testimony from citizens before attempting to redraw the maps.
Based on the state census showing 1,377,529 residents, and a 400-member House of Representatives, the committee determined that the “ideal population” to determine a House district is 3,444. In Meredith’s case, the town falls just 226 residents short of qualifying for two representatives, while Gilford has 811 residents more than the number needed for two representatives. At present, the two towns share four reps, but three reside in Gilford.
Sandy Mucci of Meredith said the combined representation disenfranchises both towns because they have nothing in common. Carita said that, if an issue came up that would benefit Gilford but hurt Meredith, it would be a 3-1 vote and Meredith would lose out.
Rep. Norman Silber of Gilford said multi-town districts are necessary, but he also acknowledged that Meredith has very different concerns from Gilford, such as its objection to being a “donor town” that pays more in state education taxes to benefit needy towns. “While I live in Gilford, I do represent the people in Meredith,” he said.
Belknap County Commissioner Hunter Taylor of Alton, prefacing his remarks by saying he was speaking as a citizen and not in his official capacity, said it makes sense to split Gilford and Meredith into separate districts, each having two representatives. He noted that Meredith has only a 3% shortfall in meeting the threshold for two representatives.
Taylor also outlined other changes that would provide better representation to the towns. Gilmanton is paired with Alton for two shared seats, and with Alton and Barnstead for a floterial seat to represent the three towns. He said that, based on their populations, Alton, Barnstead, and Gilmanton qualify for one representative each, and Alton and Barnstead could share a representative. Other speakers also noted that Gilmanton has lacked a representative from that town since the 2011 redistricting took place.
Taylor said Laconia’s population is just 349 short of qualifying for a fifth representative, a 2% short-fall that is within a “reasonable deviation” from the “ideal population” figure. He noted that, as the county’s only city, Laconia has “an array of issues and problems setting it apart from the towns in Belknap County.”
Rep. Tim Lang of Sanbornton urged the committee to separate Tilton and Sanbornton which currently are in a shared district. Although Sanbornton falls short of the “ideal population” by 418, or 12%, Tilton exceeds the necessary number of residents.
Many of the speakers asked for a second round of public hearings once a draft map is developed, so they can comment on it before it is finalized.
Jim McFarland of Meredith ended the hearing by demanding that the committee make public the algorithms and criteria it uses to develop its map, that it share the census data, that it hold its meetings in public with at least seven days of advance notice, that meeting minutes be promptly posted, and that public hearings and listening sessions should be live-streamed and recorded on the committee’s website.
Tuesday’s meeting was not live-streamed, but was recorded and will be available on the website.
McFarland said the sessions also should be on Zoom to allow more public participation. He repeated the call for the maps to be open for public discussion.
“Soliciting the contributions and review by nonpartisan redistricting experts to assist the committee with the process structure and criteria employed and redistricting challenges, as [Brian Beihl, deputy di-rector of Open Democracy] proposed and offered to the committee” should be part of the process if voters are to trust the results, McFarland said.
“To do otherwise is to perpetuate the injustice inflicted on Meredith’s voters in 2011, depriving us of our rightful representation,” he concluded. “Consider your legacy and choose to defend rather than destroy democracy in New Hampshire.”