By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Over the years, Republicans have been very adept at maintaining their power although the demographic trends favor Democrats.
Without fanfare, Republicans have passed laws they say make elections more secure, but Democrats call it voter suppression.
The laws passed in New Hampshire and similar ones in other states, enhance voting requirements and also make some voting blocs like college students or minorities pause before casting a ballot.
Although the Democratic controlled legislature passed several laws rolling back the voting changes, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the bills and Democrats do not have the votes to override.
The changes that have been enacted since Republicans took control of both the legislature and the governor’s office have not gone unnoticed.
Former President Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who is contemplating a U.S. Senate run, cited the new voting requirements in predicting Trump and he would carry the state in the 2020 general election.
The other technique the GOP uses to maintain power is gerrymandering, which draws political districts to a party’s or candidate’s advantage although voters’ political leanings would not favor that outcome.
Some states’ Congressional districts were so gerrymandered, federal courts overturned them and ordered new districts drawn before elections were held.
In New Hampshire, the two Congressional districts are not gerrymandered, but the executive council, senate and house districts certainly are.
Executive Council District 2 is a perfect example of how gerrymandering works, packing members of one party into a district while leaving few members of that party in surrounding districts making them easier for the other party to win.
That is fine for the majority, but not for the minority. Gerrymandering disenfranchises voters who may never have anyone representing their views in office although their party may have as many members overall as the party that drew the new boundaries.
District 2 was redrawn in the 2012 when Republicans held veto proof majorities in the House and Senate and controlled all five Executive Council seats.
Democratic stronghold Keene had been in District 5 for many years and Dover, another reliably Democratic city, was historically in District 3 along with Durham and Madbury. When the political map was redrawn, Keene, Dover, Durham and Madbury joined Democratic stronghold Concord in District 2, making it prohibitively Democratic, while districts 3 and 5 became much more Republican.
The state Senate map redrawn in 2012 also favored Republicans. Although more Democratic votes were cast for state senators in the next two general elections, Republicans held a 13-11 and 14-10 advantage.
The House was also redrawn to ensure Republican control outside of a blue wave like the one sweeping Democrats into power in 2018 or the 2012 election with former President Barack Obama topping the ticket.
Although Democrats control the Legislature, Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, introduced House Bill 706 this session which establishes a redistricting commission of equal numbers of both parties and gives the legislature a final vote on the plan.
The bill passed the House and Senate election law committees unanimously, had a somewhat bipartisan vote in the House with more than a dozen Republicans voting in favor, and no opposition during the voice vote in the Senate.
The bill would have made New Hampshire the first state to establish an independent redistricting commission legislatively. Several other states have established independent commissions by voter referendum.
Friday, Sununu vetoed the bill saying the Constitution requires lawmakers to redraw the lines not a commission.
“Legislators should not abrogate their responsibility to the voters and delegate authority to an unelected and unaccountable commission selected by political party bosses,” Sununu wrote in his veto message, although that somewhat misrepresents the selection process.
Non-office holders would apply to the Secretary of State’s Office, which would determine if the applicants qualify and then submit that list to the House and Senate majority and minority leadership to pick 10 from each party.
“We should all be proud that issues of gerrymandering are extremely rare in New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “Our current redistricting process is fair and representative of the people of our state.”
That is certainly true if you are a Republican but not if you are a Democrat.
The governor was on the Executive Council when the members changed the boundaries in 2012 which helped him maintain his District 3 seat. At the time, first-term District 2 councilor Dan St. Hilaire, R-Concord, was the sacrificial lamb, but was rewarded with a position in state government and last year Sununu successfully nominated him to be a superior court judge.
In his veto message, Sununu tied the bill to a national organization he quoted as saying its mission was “to favorably position Democrats for the redistricting process.”
The organization, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, was established by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to combat the Republican gerrymandering that allowed their party to control the U.S. House of Representatives although Democratic candidates received more votes nationwide than did Republicans in elections this decade.
Holder released a statement criticizing Sununu’s veto.
“The Governor apparently wants to perpetuate a system where politicians pick their voters and citizens do not get to choose their representatives,” Holder said. “He has disrespected Granite Staters who deserve a government that truly works for them and not just for those who have special connections.”
After the veto, Smith said, “I am devastated that today the Governor chose to veto bipartisan legislation to create an independent redistricting commission in New Hampshire. There is no better example of improving our democracy than was demonstrated in this bill.”
She noted the bill’s unanimous bipartisan support on the two election committees and in the Senate where she worked with two Republican senators to craft a compromise.
“Today the Governor chose to ignore the bipartisan action of the legislature and deny voters the right to choose who they would like to vote for,” Smith said, “and he should be ashamed of himself for doing so.”
Almost since time began, Republicans have redrawn the political boundaries of New Hampshire to their advantage with one recent exception in 2002 when lawmakers and former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen failed to agree on any plan and the Supreme Court hired an outside firm to draw the political maps. Democrats took control of the House and Senate two elections later and held power for four years.
Political parties are supposed to look out for their own interest, but there is a tipping point when the party’s interest overwhelms the general public’s interest.
When that happens, often a partisan swing results like the 2006 and 2008 elections. After four years the pendulum swung back to Republican control in 2010, which resulted in the highly GOP favorable political map in effect today.
Sununu may believe Republicans will control the legislature after the 2020 election, or he will be re-elected and can veto any Democratically favorable political map, but if that does not happen, the veto could result in the GOP being out of power for a very long time.
When the pendulum swings to one side, as it did in the last election, it usually stays for at least the next election.
Next year is a presidential election and will certainly turn out a larger than normal number of voters given the current state of the nation’s political landscape, and that may be problematic for the GOP.
We live in an age of hyper partisanship. The veto of House Bill 706 turns up the heat and the party drawing the political boundaries in 2022 is not going to be in a compromising mood.
The opportunity for bipartisanship to produce fair political representation for New Hampshire people is lost and not likely to appear again for another decade.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London. InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to holding government accountable and giving voice to marginalized people, places and ideas.