Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org welcome veteran political reporter Garry Rayno’s new Distant Dome column.
By GARRY RAYNO
How often have we heard, “It’s the will of the people” or “We have a mandate from voters,” usually after an election like last November’s, which produced a paradoxical political landscape in an evenly divided nation.
We have a president who lost the popular vote while his party controls both the US House and Senate, and in New Hampshire Republicans control the State House for the first time since 2004, but every member of the state’s Congressional delegation is a Democrat.
How does this happen?
The simple answer is gerrymandering here in the Granite State and nationally.
The old adage is “to the victor go the spoils,” and that certainly is true when political boundaries are redrawn every 10 years. After every US census, US House, and state House, Senate and Executive Council districts are redrawn to reflect changes in population to align with the “one man, one vote” principle.
But that does not mean each voter has a fair chance of having someone elected who reflects his or her political philosophy even in a purple state.
The year after the US census, the party controlling a state legislature has the privilege of redrawing the political boundaries for its state and its Congressional districts. And the controlling party would be politically foolish not to take advantage of its good fortune.
For the last century in New Hampshire, with one exception in 2002, Republicans have redrawn the political boundaries.
In 2002, the Republican-controlled legislature failed to produce plans that were acceptable to Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, but lacked the votes to override her vetoes. Redrawing the boundaries fell to the state Supreme Court and in two of the next three elections Democrats controlled the state legislature.
And the fourth election under the court’s plan — 2010 —was a Tea Party-fueled landslide both in New Hampshire and across the country giving Republicans control of a comfortable majority of state legislatures.
High hurdle to win
Today we see the effects of those changes in Congressional districts as it is almost impossible for Democrats to win control of the US House.
After the 2010 election, New Hampshire Republicans had veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, and GOP lawmakers developed highly effective redistricting plans that all but guaranteed GOP control of the legislature for the next decade.
The 2013-2014 Democratically-controlled House has been the only exception. Democrats rode the momentum of President Barack Obama’s significant victory margin over Mitt Romney down the ballot.
But the fruits or their earlier labor held in the Senate for Republicans during that election. Republicans lost their veto-proof majority, but managed to hold to a slim 13-11 majority although Democratic candidates received almost 13,000 more votes than GOP office seekers.
In the 2014 election, Democratic candidates received about 2,500 more votes than Republicans but lost one seat winning only 10 of the 24.
2016 helped GOP
In the 2016 election, the legislative districts helped Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate, while Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire by a few thousand votes and Democrats won the three contested federal seats
Making political boundaries more favorable to your party is not rocket science. If you are Republican, you pack large concentrations of Democrats into as few districts as possible to limit the number of House or Senate seats they can win. You can also add GOP leaning towns to evenly divided districts while moving Democratic towns to already Democratic seats.
However, a recent federal court decision in Wisconsin may put an end to serious gerrymandering if it stands.
The decision ordered the state, which is evenly split politically, to redraw legislative districts, which have put Republicans in clear control of the State House. The court said the districts have to be redrawn more fairly before the next election
That decision has been appealed.
In the New Hampshire legislature there are several bills seeking to take the politics out of redistricting. One sponsored by House Democrats would set up a seven-member, non-partisan board to redraw the state’s political boundaries like the California redistricting commission.
The non-partisan board was approved by voter referendum in 2008 and redrew the state’s political boundaries beginning with the 2012 election.
A Senate bill — sponsored by Democrats — would do much the same thing as the House proposal, and another Democratically sponsored bill would draw districts by computer.
The three bills have little chance of passing this year, but the discussion has begun before political boundaries are changed again after the 2020 census.
That year is also the next Presidential election when millions more voters will go to the polls than in the 2018 off-year election.
2020 is coming
And state legislators elected in 2020 will redraw the political boundaries for the next decade.
You know Republicans and Democrats already have plans in place to optimize the odds for victory.
However, gerrymandering is about more than party supremacy. The advantaged party’s legislative agenda is often at odds with the majority’s wishes and that subverts democracy.
It is time to rethink how we establish political districts here in New Hampshire and nationally to better reflect the will of the majority.
Garry Rayno’s Distant Dome runs exclusively on Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org, where Rayno will explore a broader perspective on State House – and state – happenings. Over his three-decade career Rayno has closely covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat, and his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. He is former editor of The Hillsboro Messenger and Assistant Editor of The Argus-Champion. Rayno graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in English Literature and lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.