By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Another attempt to establish an independent redistricting commission received unanimous support Thursday before a Senate Committee.
But as the former prime sponsor of the legislation noted, despite overwhelming support among the state’s voters, one voter remains to be convinced of the need for fair and representative political districts, referring to Gov. Chris Sununu who has repeatedly vetoed similar bills.
“Four out of five voters support ending gerrymandering in New Hampshire,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham. “I hope at the end of the legislative process we can successfully convince one particular voter.”
The bill is very similar to a bill approved last year by the House and Senate that would appoint an independent commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries for Congressional, Executive Council, Senate and House districts in light of the latest US Census data for the state.
The bill would allow the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate to pick 10 applicants out of a field developed by the Secretary of State’s Office and then five others for the commission.
The commission would be required to do its work in public and with public input and then present its recommendations to the Legislature for a final decision.
The prime sponsor of Senate Bill 80, Sen. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye, used Executive Council District 2 as an example of gerrymandering as it is packed with Democratic strongholds as it meanders across the state, so the other four districts would be more Republican leaning. Others noted that not only impacts Democrats, but also Republican voters in the heavily Democratic district whose votes are diminished.
“Redistricting is not designed to keep a party in power for 10 years, but to reflect changes in the demographics of the state,” Sherman told the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee. “It is our constitutional duty as legislators to make sure that is done with honesty, integrity, and transparency.”
He noted he served on the Secretary of State’s select committee on the safety and security for the 2020 elections during the pandemic.
While the emphasis was on safety and security, Sherman said, those issues pale in comparison to whether a voter’s power is diminished by gerrymandering.
He and others referred to remarks from State Republican Party Chair Stephen Stepanek last week that the state would send at least one Republican to Congress in the next election because Republicans are the majority party in the Legislature and control redistricting.
Liz Tentarelli, president, League of Women Voters NH, also mentioned Stepanek’s statement and said the Legislature has to rebuild voters’ trust in the process.
She said the 2011 redistricting process was done almost entirely behind closed doors.
“The House redistricting plan was created behind closed doors by key Republicans. None of the dozens of plans submitted by the public and organizations were ever considered, according to Rep. David Pierce, D-Hanover, at the time,” Tentarelli said. “The Democrats and even most of the Republicans on the committee were not included in these discussions and had to answer ‘I don’t know’ when the public asked questions.”
The bill has had bipartisan support the past two years, although all but one of the sponsors of SB 80 are Democrats. Rep. Daniel Wolf, R-Newbury, is also a sponsor this year.
During the public hearing, Smith read quotes from prominent Republicans including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and former President Ronald Reagan about the negative effects of gerrymandering on voters and government.
She also alluded to the 2011 and 2001 redistricting process and noted both efforts were taken to court and the 2001 effort fell to the state Supreme Court to draw the political boundaries for the House and Senate when the GOP controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen could not agree on districts.
“The cost of drawing district lines is minimal, the significant cost comes when the work is challenged in court and the state loses,” Smith said. “An independent commission minimizes the possibility of going to court.”
She also told the committee the US Census announced Wednesday its data lawmakers will need to redraw the boundaries will not be available until July 21.
The bill was also supported by several advocacy groups including Open Democracy Action.
“The voters need to pick the politicians, the politicians should not be picking voters,” said Olivia Zink, the group’s executive director. “New Hampshire has a proud tradition of civil participation and this allows voters’ voices to be part of the process.”
Louise Spencer, co-founder of the Kent Street Coalition, speaking on her own Thursday, also backed the plan to eliminate gerrymandering.
“I have my own political leanings and I am not afraid to fight as hard as I can for the things I believe in, but I do believe in a fair fight,” Spencer said. “Gerrymandering is a temptation for both parties. It is done to protect parties, to protect incumbents, to protect special interests, to protect everyone but the voter.”
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill. A similar bill is also before the House.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com