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Citizens and advocates join Sununu in asking Senate to change maps

Allegra Boverman
New Hampshire’s redistricting effort continues.

Citizens and advocates are pushing the New Hampshire Senate to change redistricting maps they say are gerrymandered – and they’re now wielding Gov. Chris Sununu’s recent comments on the maps to make their case. 

Sununu told WMUR in late January that he had asked senators to change the maps currently before them. “I told them: ‘Look, it’s legal, it’s fine. But my guess is we can do something better. We can do something more balanced,’” he said. “If you have a map like that, you’re really locking folks in.”

But Sen. James Gray, the chairman of the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee, said he hasn’t heard from the governor in months. “I haven’t had any real discussions about how a map should be drawn with anybody in that branch,” said Gray, a Rochester Republican, in an interview Tuesday. 

At least one voting rights advocacy group thinks the governor’s comments on the maps could influence the committee. Brain Beihl, deputy director of Open Democracy Action, said it was significant that Sununu is calling for maps that are transparent and fair. 

“There are a lot of Republican voters, especially in Congressional District 2, who are very upset about this because their vote no longer matters. It’s so gerrymandered that no Republican will ever win there, and they have a right to be upset,” Beihl said.

Citizens and advocates who testified to senators about the maps at a public hearing on Monday echoed and amplified that message, opposing maps that would cement partisan advantage in a given voting district.

“My hope is that the committee considers the governor’s statements,” said Gail Kinney of Canaan at a hearing Monday. 

“We all want our votes to count,” Corinne Dodge of Derry told lawmakers. “We want to be free to vote in a competitive district in which we have a fair chance for our candidate of choice to win. And that’s Republican voters and Democratic voters.”

A report released by the ACLU of New Hampshire on Monday found that redistricting proposals for the House of Representatives, Senate, and Executive Council would all give the majority Republican Party an unfair advantage in elections for the next 10 years.

The proposal left Republican-leaning counties of Belknap and Merrimack largely unchanged but made big adjustments to the eight other counties, according to the analysis.

The report, commissioned by the ACLU and conducted by FLO Analytics, found that the proposal would result in 213 of 400 seats leaning Republican, an 8.7 percent increase from voting patterns in the presidential election of 2020, where the breakdown was 196 out of 400.

The analysis was the second installment of a four-part series by the ACLU; the first installment found that the majority’s congressional map proposal was also gerrymandered, giving partisan advantage to the Republican Party.

At a hearing before the Senate Election Law Committee on Monday, ACLU staff attorney Henry Klementowicz raised another issue with the House proposal: prison gerrymandering.

Ward 3 in Concord is 30.5 percent incarcerated, according to Klementowicz, who said those people should be counted in their home communities, not in the prison. “Currently a group of 70 actual residents in Concord Ward 3 is given about as much representation as 100 residents in districts without prisons,” he said.

Klementowicz opposed both the House and congressional maps on behalf of the ACLU, and said the congressional map would take what are now two competitive districts and make them noncompetitive by “packing” Democratic voters into District 2. “Why was this done? The only explanation is for political gain,” he said.

Lawmakers are still tweaking the maps. An amendment to the House map would give Berlin its own representative, and it would give an additional representative to the city of Manchester, raising the total number of representatives in the state’s largest city to 33. Both were issues previously raised by voting rights advocacy groups. Two Concord wards would be swapped (Ward 4 would move to Merrimack District 29 and Ward 8 to Merrimack District 30). And Goffstown Republican Rep. Barbara Griffin, the chair of the House Special Committee on Redistricting, said there may be additional changes, to reflect how Laconia drew two of its wards (2 and 4), in addition to giving two Rockingham towns their own House districts. 

Gray said he expects an amendment addressing those issues next week but that no alternative congressional district map has been presented to him so far. He said he doesn’t plan to act on that bill immediately, which would leave time for changes to be introduced.

David Andrews, a fellow at the Redistricting Data Hub, said these changes would bring constitutional violations down from 56 towns entitled to a designated representative to 54 – but Andrews advocated for independent maps that could bring the number as low as 40. 

Andrews has worked with the Map-a-Thon program, a coalition of voting rights groups and residents that have drawn independent maps. Map-a-Thon published a detailed analysis of the recent Senate amendment compared to independently drawn maps. 

Securing a dedicated representative in towns with a sufficient population has galvanized residents throughout the redistricting process, and they took lawmakers to task on the issue again on Monday. 

“My town of Canaan already 10 years ago was robbed of the single-representative district it was due based on the constitutional mandate,” Kinney told lawmakers Monday. “The architects of House Bill 50 heard impassioned testimony from town officials in Canaan and from others asking that this constitutional impropriety with the town of Canaan be fixed. But it was not fixed.”

Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, a Portsmouth Democrat, asked Griffin what criteria was used that resulted in less competitive House maps.

“I invite anybody to come to the House floor to predict whether a vote is competitive, or can be forecast with any reliability,” Griffin replied. She told senators the maps were developed to meet state and federal constitutional criteria. And she argued that the proposed congressional districts better account for regional interests related to transportation and securing federal money for the 10-year highway plan.   

Two North Country residents spoke against the congressional maps they said would negatively impact their region.

“The geography alone is incredibly upsetting if you happen to live in central or northern New Hampshire,” said Theresa Kennett of Conway. While there have historically been two people looking out for the needs of the region, the Republican-backed map leaves it up to one, she said, “and that person is supposed to attend to all of the North Country, all of central New Hampshire, and the southwestern part of our state.”

“Most alarming is the prospect of the North Country, which already receives scant attention from those in power in the state, losing further representation, which means we lose our voice,” said Dorothea Seybold of Jackson.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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