(This is the second part of a series on the 2021 redistricting process.)
CONCORD — The last legislative redistricting season, in 2011, resulted in charges of gerrymandering — manipulating the district maps to provide a political advantage to the party in power. As the House Special Committee on Redistricting convened this year, voters were ready to express their frustrations with the way the maps divided “communities of interest” and even split counties for political purposes.
Residents were surprised to find that, despite a more open process in which the committee traveled to towns around the state to take public comment, the maps that Republicans were proposing this year appeared to be even more gerrymandered than the ones they had seen in 2011.
Of particular concern is the congressional district map proposed by the GOP. Under the stated purpose of connecting communities of interest in the “southern tier,” the proposal moves several Seacoast-area towns into the Second Congressional District in order to make room for southern communities in District 1. The result is to give Republicans a strong presence in District 1 and the Democrats a strong presence in District 2.
In testimony during work sessions and at public comment sessions, speaker after speaker disparaged the plan, saying it would make the state more partisan and encourage extremists on both sides.
Just as discouraging to county residents are the plans to group towns without common interests into large “floterial” districts that sometimes cross county lines and split up school districts and public service areas.
During a public informational meeting at the Belknap Mill last month, residents discussed how they felt disenfranchised. Gilmanton residents have been combined with Alton for two shared seats, and with Alton and Barnstead for a floterial seat representing the three towns. The combination has resulted in Gilmanton having had no representative from that town since the 2011 redistricting took place.
The Republican proposal would create a district in which Gilmanton would be part of a single floterial district that also includes Belmont and Laconia’s Ward 4. They would share four seats.
The Democrats’ plan also would result in four seats, but shared with Gilford and Laconia Ward 6.
That is despite the fact that Gilmanton qualifies for its own representative in a single-seat district. Under a constitutional amendment passed in 2006, towns with a population of at least 3,000 are entitled to a representative. The redistricting committee calculated that, with a 2020 census of 1,377,529 state residents, and a 400-member House of Representatives, the “ideal population” to qualify for a representative is 3,444 (the population divided by the number of seats). Gilmanton has 3,945 residents.
Many people testifying before the redistricting committee argued that the map should create as many single-town districts as possible, and it should keep together communities of interest — those sharing school districts, water and sewer districts, police and fire precincts, and public health services. Cities should remain together, as their interests are not the same as the towns.
Sometimes the odd numbers make such clear divisions impossible, the committee said.
Belknap County Commissioner Hunter Taylor testified that Laconia’s population falls 349 short of qualifying for a fifth representative, and should not have a ward separated and combined with a town. Laconia, he said, has “an array of issues and problems setting it apart from the towns in Belknap County.”
Meredith and Gilford have shared four representatives, and they would continue to do so under the Republican proposal. The Democrats’ proposal would give Meredith its own two representatives, but as noted above, Gilford would share four representatives with Gilmanton and Laconia Ward 6.
Belmont, under the Democrats’ plan, would have one representative on its own and share two others with Sanbornton and Tilton.
Large floterial districts are generally panned because they combine towns with little in common. Yet they are sometimes necessary to deal with the excess population to ensure the one man, one vote federal requirement.
Under the Republican plan for Carroll County, Sandwich would share two representatives in a floterial district with Albany, Bartlett, Chatham, Hart’s Location, and Jackson. Under the Democrats’ plan, Sandwich would share three seats with Albany, Chatham, Conway, and Hale’s Location, and one seat with Albany, Bartlett, Chatham, Conway, Hale’s Location, Hart’s Location, and Jackson.
Moultonborough would share two seats with Madison and Tamworth and two seats with Brookfield, Eaton, Effingham, Freedom, Madison, Tamworth, and Wakefield under the Republican plan. The minority party’s proposal would give Moultonborough one single seat and two shared seats with Brookfield, Eaton, Effingham, Freedom, Madison, Tamworth, and Wakefield.
As unpopular as those proposals are, the main argument the redistricting committee has heard involves the Republican plan for the congressional districts.
William Farnham of Tamworth told the committee that it's important to maintain competitive districts. “When elections are competitive,” he said, “the candidates must articulate how they will represent all of their constituents. … Competition ensures that the best candidate will be elected, regardless of party. Competition generates more voter turnout, thus better representation of all the voters.
“What does non-competitiveness in elections promote?” he continued. “Less choice, a more shallow understanding of complex issues. The candidates have no reason to explain what they can do for all of the constituents they will represent; they only need to appeal to one group.”
T.P. Caldwell is a writer, editor, photographer, and videographer who formed and serves as project manager of the Liberty Independent Media Project. Contact him at email@example.com.