(This is the first part of a two-part story on the 2021 redistricting process.)
CONCORD — The message remains the same: Restore a fair and nonpartisan process for adjusting voting districts to reflect the 2020 census figures, and end the gerrymandering that has split up towns with common interests in order to meet a political agenda.
That is the message that Belknap County residents told the House Special Committee on Redistricting when it met last month at the Belknap Mill, and it is what citizens throughout the state have been saying during committee work sessions and public hearings on the map proposals being considered by the House panel.
Redistricting did not get a lot of public attention until recent years when cooperation between the political parties began to fade. The oft-secretive legislative process became suspect as people began taking an interest in how the maps of political districts were drawn.
In early March 2011, when it was time to redraw the boundaries based on the 2010 census, representatives in Concord proposed a bill that would establish an independent commission to hold hearings around the state and provide non-binding recommendations to the legislature. The bill failed in committee.
An attempt to get then-Governor John Lynch to name non-elected experts to serve on a redistricting commission failed on a party-line vote and, by early April, the 2011 House Special Committee on Redistricting held its initial meeting. The major focus was on the congressional districts then served by Republicans Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass.
By the following March, a House subcommittee voted, 7-3, to accept a plan that moved seven Republican-leaning towns from the Second District to the First, while three towns — Hart’s Location, Merrimack, and New Hampton — from the First to the Second Congressional District. The change would have made the First District more Republican-leaning and the Second District more Democrat-leaning. The full committee rejected that plan, 14-1.
The Senate plan, which moved 19,000 voters between the districts (compared to 16,500 in the subcommittee’s plan), passed the House on a 239-95 vote, and it was signed by Governor Lynch.
Meanwhile, in considering state representative seats, the House was mindful of a constitutional amendment that New Hampshire residents had approved in 2006, requiring that every community with 3,000 or more residents have at least one state representative.
Lawmakers submitted several redistricting proposals and, on Dec. 20, the committee voted, 12-5, to adopt the Republican leadership plan. The full House approved it on a 205-68 vote, rejecting the Democrats’ alternative plan. The Democrats said the Republican plan was unconstitutional because more than 50 towns that qualified for their own representatives were not allotted any.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Republicans crafted a plan out of the public eye that changed 18 of 24 senate districts, giving a number of GOP incumbents stronger Republican districts. It passed on a 19-4 party-line vote and advanced to the House where it passed, 253-91. Lynch signed the Senate map into law but rejected the House plan because it disenfranchised towns that qualified for their own representatives.
House Speaker William O’Brien held a private Republican caucus on March 28, 2012, then reconvened the full House and called for a vote to override Lynch’s veto — something that was not on the House calendar. O’Brien denied the Democrats a chance to hold their own caucus and the motion to override the governor’s veto passed, 246-112. The Senate then followed with a 17-7 veto override.
The N.H. Supreme Court rejected the five lawsuits filed over the process, saying the redistricting plans did not violate the state Constitution.
That set the stage for this year’s redistricting process.
During the March town meetings, a number of communities approved resolutions calling for an independent, non-partisan commission to redraw political boundaries, based on the 2020 census. Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill that would have created such a redistricting commission, saying he was satisfied that the process in place is fair and that gerrymandering is rare. He added that he would veto any redistricting plan that did not meet his “smell test.”
(The 2021 redistricting process will be discussed in the second part of this series.)
T.P. Caldwell can be contacted at email@example.com.