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Where things stand on redistricting in N.H.

Todd Bookman / NHPR

The New Hampshire Senate will vote Thursday on new congressional district maps for the state.

Those maps, crafted by Republicans in the New Hampshire House, would make the 1st Congressional District, now held by Democrat Chris Pappas, more Republican, largely by moving a handful of Democratic-leaning cities (Portsmouth, Rochester, Somersworth and Dover) out of the district, and replacing them with Republican-friendly towns (including Windham, Salem, Pelham and Hudson).

The 2nd District, held by Democrat Annie Kuster for the past decade, would meanwhile become more Democratic-leaning.

Under these new maps, about 25 percent of state voters would vote this year in a new district.

Gov. Chris Sununu has called these proposed new maps “legal,” but for weeks now, he’s also made sporadic and unspecific calls for the state Senate to revise the House’s work. Sununu said he doesn’t like the idea of making either district a sure win for either party.

“I just think it looks funky; I don’t know a better way to explain it,” Sununu said last week.

Sununu was non-committal when asked if he’d planned to sign the maps into law or veto them.

“I am just one person – with a big pen,” Sununu said to the New England Council.

In that same speech, he noted that redistricting isn’t an urgent matter to most people who don’t work in politics.

“I don’t think this is a make-or-break issue for most people,” Sununu said.

With that context, here are some things to bear in mind as New Hampshire’s redistricting process continues this week.

Drawn by Republicans, for Republicans: Redistricting is a political process

From the start this year, redistricting has been a GOP-controlled process. It’s hard to see Republicans changing the basic bottom line of any of the maps they created.

If Sununu’s “make or break” line suggests he sees a veto of these maps as far fetched, it’s also worth noting what another key player in this process has said: Senate Election Law Committee Chair Jim Gray of Rochester.

“The plan that was developed by the House meets all the criteria, and I can support that,” Gray said before his committee voted to endorse the House’s maps without amendment earlier this month.

That bottom line assessment may not please critics of the proposed maps, but these were drawn by Republicans, for Republicans. In other words: Redistricting is a partisan process in New Hampshire.

Republicans, with Sununu leading the way, have fought efforts in recent years to change that dynamic by creating an independent redistricting commission. This year’s redistricting process is the first time since the 1990s that Republicans have redrawn New Hampshire’s maps while controlling the House, Senate and the governor’s office, which allows them a pretty free hand in drawing the maps that will be in effect for the next five elections.

Those involved in the crafting of these maps are well aware of that. In fact, they argue that Democrats' record in recent elections (Democratic candidates have won nine of the 10 congressional races under the current maps) proves the current district lines unfairly favor Democrats in a purple state.

Those maps were drawn by Republicans, after a 2010 election cycle in which the GOP won pretty much everything. In any case, under the new maps proposed by the House, Republicans’ winning percentage is almost guaranteed to improve.

Congressional maps have gotten a lot of attention, but State House maps may be more significant

Suppose New Hampshire ends up with a split congressional delegation: Will this change much in Washington, D.C.?

Probably not.

But legislative maps that confer a partisan advantage in Concord can make a big difference.

The state Senate is the clearest case in point. If you look at history, maps that aided Republicans have allowed that party to control the chamber even when Democratic candidates win more overall votes, statewide, on Election Day. That influence translates into policy outcomes on big items like the state budgets, as well as smaller issues across the board.

The proposed new Senate maps would only solidify that trend, with Republicans continuing to hold an overall advantage in the number of districts favorable to them on Election Day.

The Executive Council maps are important too.

The Executive Council control has lately tended to swing with political waves, but Republicans are hoping that changes to their maps can insulate them from that.

Councilors David Wheeler and Joe Kenney, who’ve been voted in and out of their council seats several times, would like to make their districts safer, by trimming Democratic-leaning towns and replacing them with more Republican-friendly ones.

Right now, it seems the current council districts, including the notoriously gerrymandered District 2 now represented by Democrat Cinde Warmington, are likely to remain intact. And while Sununu has had his political problemswith this GOP-led council, majority party control around the council table typically makes it much easier to confirm picks for top state jobs (see Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald, for one).

Republicans, from Sununu on down, say they are confident the pending maps are “legal.” 

Democrats have yet to specify any way they believe these proposed, Republican-friendly maps are illegal or violate the state or federal constitutions.

Instead, they’ve mostly objected on process grounds: that Republicans didn’t heed public input on the maps.

Republicans have meanwhile focused on the numbers – deviations around district size and so forth – and argued that the math undergirding their maps is beyond reproach.

What is fact, however, is that in 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal judges have no role in policing partisan redistricting. In essence, the court said partisan political gerrymandering is a political question, not a legal one, unlike gerrymandering along racial lines, which is illegal.

That doesn’t mean Democrats might not have a basis to challenge these maps in state courts, or that they will ultimately find a way to argue that these maps do gerrymander along racial lines. But if such arguments exist, they’ve not been made publicly.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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