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As N.H. voters head to polls next month, gerrymandered state Senate is on the ballot

New Hampshire's 24 state Senate districts have changed considerably over the years. One thing, however, has remained constant: the maps have tended to give Republicans an advantage.
Sara Plourde
New Hampshire's 24 state Senate districts have changed considerably over the years. One thing, however, has remained constant: The maps have tended to give Republicans an advantage.

When New Hampshire voters head to the polls in just a couple of weeks, a good number will find themselves casting their ballot in an entirely new legislative district — even if they haven’t moved addresses since the last election.

The reason? Redistricting, the once-a-decade process in which the maps dividing the state into congressional and State House districts are redrawn. In theory, redistricting has a single goal: to account for changes in population every 10 years and ensure that the number of people in each political district remains relatively equal.

But in practice, redistricting in New Hampshire (as in much of the rest of the country) is an inherently political process. State lawmakers are the ones who redraw the maps and approve them, just like any other piece of legislation. That means the majority rules when it comes to drawing up new voting districts — with long-lasting repercussions for representation and state policy.

This story is the second in a two-part collaboration between NHPR and New Hampshire Bulletin. Read more: Gerrymandering on the ground: A redrawn Senate District 9 ties together ‘polar opposite’ towns

2022 was a redistricting year, and since Republicans hold the majority in both the House and Senate in New Hampshire, it meant Republicans decided where to draw the legislative district lines.

NHPR has teamed up with the New Hampshire Bulletin to take a closer look at the partisan nature of redistricting that shaped the legislative districts on the ballot this year. And we found that the new Senate map not only seems poised to perpetuate the existing pro-Republican tilt of the current map, it is likely to crank it up even further. That would mean another term of a comfortable Republican state Senate majority — giving the party the ability to sway policy outcomes on a range of key issues, from the environment to tax policy to the state budget — despite the fact that Republicans haven’t won an outright majority of statewide votes for these offices in over a decade.

How we’re exploring gerrymandering in the N.H. Senate

In 2016, NHPR analyzed 30 years of voting data to explore the effects of redistricting in the 24-district Senate. That analysis showed that, through their control of redistricting in recent decades, Republicans have consistently gerrymandered the state Senate to their advantage, gaining roughly 10% more seats than they would have in a neutral map in four of the past five elections. In short, gerrymandered redistricting has allowed Republicans to hold more influence in the Senate than an independently drawn map would have likely yielded.

But what about the new Senate map, the one up for votes for the first time this coming Election Day? Does it perpetuate the partisan bias of the recent past?

To answer that, we took a two-pronged approach. First, the Bulletin’s Amanda Gokee went to one particularly gerrymandered state Senate district, District 9, to examine how voters are impacted by this political reshuffling. The district was redrawn this year to stretch from the Manchester suburbs to the Vermont border, curling and squiggling east to west, in a shape that offers a textbook gerrymander. Many of the people she spoke to there said their new district makes little sense as a coherent political unit, and they’re worried it will leave lots of residents underrepresented in Concord next year.

Sara Plourde
State Senate District 9 has changed considerably through several rounds of redistricting, and now stretches from Bedford, a Manchester suburb, to the Vermont border.

Second, NHPR’s Sara Plourde and Dan Barrick re-upped our redistricting data analysis from 2016. The goal was to measure, as much as possible, the statewide partisan impacts of the new state Senate map. To do so, we took the town-level results of the 2020 state Senate votes and applied them to the new districts for 2022, counting how many votes for a given party would be “wasted” in the new districts. (A fuller discussion of the methodology we used is included below.)

Use the black dot in the middle of the map below to "slide" between the 2020 and 2022 district maps.

The numbers show that the new map gives a slightly more Republican tilt to two districts in particular.

One is District 9, which in 2020 saw the Republican candidate edge out a victory by just a 1% margin. Our analysis shows the newly redrawn District 9, which stretches from Bedford to Hinsdale, now gives Republicans a roughly five-point advantage.

And District 16 — which now groups the North End of Manchester with the Republican-leaning towns of Hooksett, Goffstown, Candia and Raymond — went from having a slight Democratic-lean in its old incarnation to a slight Republican-lean in the new map. Previously, the district included Dunbarton and Bow, and saw Democratic wins by narrow margins over the past three election cycles.

The net effect of this? Republicans are now well-poised to add at least one additional seat to the 14-10 majority they enjoyed in the last legislative session. And this GOP majority seems likely to hold, despite the fact that the party’s candidates have not won a clear majority in the statewide state Senate vote in the past decade, as illustrated in the graphic below.

Sara Plourde
This table compares the statewide partisan vote in state Senate district elections, from 2012 to 2020. The middle column shows the resulting partisan breakdown of Senate seats, and the right-hand column shows the “efficiency gap” of that year’s election - that is, the degree to which the district lines favored Republicans (four elections out of the past five). The one exception was 2018, in which Democratic Senate candidates won 54% of the popular vote and won roughly the same share of total Senate seats.

Though the statewide vote for Senate candidates has been fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans over the past decade (with the exception of a big statewide Democratic majority in 2018), Republicans have come away with a majority in the state Senate in four out of the past five election cycles. In three of the last four elections, Republicans have had a 10% or more partisan advantage compared to what they might have in a more neutral map, our analysis shows. The exception, again, was in 2018, when a strong Democratic showing neutralized the impact of the gerrymandered map.

The impact of this is fairly clear: Republican-drawn maps have consistently allowed the party to hold power and influence in the State House that is not proportionate to the support their candidates get at the ballot box every two years. The GOP’s majority is, in a real sense, written into the map itself.

It’s something political scientists have noted for years: Even as the state’s changing demographics have favored Democrats, the Legislature has remained a relative bastion of Republican control.

“New Hampshire is now a Democratic state,” said Andrew Smith, head of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center, noting the wave of college-educated Democrats who moved to New Hampshire in recent decades. “It kind of looks like a split state because the House and the Senate are gerrymandered. You’ve got to have about 54% of the popular vote if you’re a Democrat to win.”

So, how can the redistricting process be reimagined to eliminate — or at least reduce — partisan gerrymandering? One option is to take the job out of the hands of lawmakers altogether by creating an independent redistricting panel every decade. Bipartisan efforts to do that, however, have met regular defeat over the past decade. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu last year vetoed a bipartisan bill that would create an independent redistricting panel, saying that the process is fair and works fine as is.

And a second route to blunt the impact of partisan gerrymandering — review by the courts — was foreclosed recently when a state Superior Court judge ruledthat the New Hampshire Constitution gives lawmakers wide authority to control redistricting, even if the outcome is driven by partisan motives.

So, it seems that, at least for the next decade, gerrymandering is here to stay in New Hampshire.

A note on methodology: Measuring the gerrymander

To measure the degree of partisan gerrymandering in the state Senate, we relied on a tool known as the Efficiency Gap. Here’s how we explained the Efficiency Gap back in 2016:

“The metric hinges on what researchers call ‘wasted votes.’ A vote is wasted if it had no impact on the outcome of a given election. So, any vote for a winning candidate that’s in excess of the number needed to win that race is counted as wasted, since the candidate didn't need it to secure victory. And any vote for a losing candidate is also considered wasted, since it had no impact on the result. Some number of wasted votes are inevitable in any contested election. In a truly neutral legislative map, Republicans and Democrats will have roughly the same amount of wasted votes.

“But creating districts that minimize wasted votes for one party’s candidates and increase the number of wasted votes for the opposing party—that, in essence, is gerrymandering. The result is an electoral map that reflects partisan intent over voter intent in the final tally of legislative seats.

“So, if you count up each party’s wasted votes and divide that figure by the total number of votes cast, that number is the ‘efficiency gap.’ It tells you how much of a disproportionate boost a party got in an election. What that number measures: How much larger a share of seats did a party receive, above what it would have gotten from a neutral legislative map?”

The Efficiency Gap is not flawless. Some have criticized it as being overly simplistic or failing to account for political geographic irregularities, like a densely populated urban area with an overwhelming concentration of voters from a single political party. But it is generally seen as a useful tool for identifying, at a high level, a partisan gerrymander in a legislative map.

Sara Plourde

Dan is NHPR's news director.
Sara has been a part of NHPR since 2011. Her work includes data visualizations, data journalism, original stories reported on the web, video, photos and illustrations. She is responsible for the station's visual style and print design, as well as the user experience of NHPR's digital platforms.
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