By Thomas P. Caldwell
CONCORD — Harold Frost of Etna recalled hearing, in his high school American History class, about Massachusetts politicians creating “sort of a slimy beast that looked like a salamander, and they called it a gerrymander.”
“Now, that was not written up as an example of good governance,” he told the House Special Committee on Redistricting during its second public comment session on Nov. 10. “It was the sort of thing that people in New Hampshire generally looked down upon because they expect their local government to be honest and competent. And rightly so.
“And imagine my surprise, then, to wake up one morning recently and see in my morning newspaper that the gerrymander beast had crawled up the Merrimack River Valley and was sitting in the middle of New Hampshire,” he continued. “So let me explain: It is your job as a committee to beat back the gerrymander beast.”
In three hours of public testimony Wednesday evening, not a single one of the 42 speakers endorsed the Republicans’ redistricting proposals and, in particular, their revised map of congressional districts. They described that map as the most extreme example of gerrymandering yet.
Lucas Meyer of Manchester referred to UNH Professor Dante Scala’s attempt to draw “the most Republican maps possible” and said Scala’s efforts “fell short of this committee’s work.”
Louise Spencer of Concord said, “The people of New Hampshire … want fair, nonpartisan maps. It’s as simple as that, and it’s a goal that can be accomplished.”
Brandon Latham of Merrimack told the committee, “In New Hampshire, we’re proud of our politics. We’re proud of this, the most representative legislative body in the world, right here in this chamber, and of our classic New England-style town meetings, dozens of which voted this spring for independent, fair maps without partisan considerations.”
Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill that would have created an independent redistricting commission, saying the process in place is fair, representative, and accountable to the voters, and that gerrymandering is rare. He promised that he would veto any redistricting plan that did not meet the smell test.
Speaker after speaker noted that the Republican map would realign the congressional districts to create one Democrat-leaning district and one Republican-leaning district and said that would increase partisanship and lead to the most extreme people getting elected. They said that, by guaranteeing either party a seat regardless of the popular vote, gerrymandering also would remove a politician’s incentive to speak with constituents and hear their concerns. Finally, if the results are a foregone conclusion, people would lose the incentive to vote.
“Politicians should not choose the voters; voters should choose the politicians,” several people said.
Richard Gelinas of Nashua said democracy is fragile and the Republican map would further weaken it. “Electing representatives from the margins will only further divide our state and our country,” he said. “Some examples of people that have been elected from uncompetitive districts are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rashida Tlaib, Jim Jordan, Ayanna Pressley, and Matt Gaetz. So that’s something to think about when you sit down to hopefully re-evaluate this.”
William Maddocks of Amherst commented, “I don’t know what’s going on in the House Republican Party. It seems the thrill of the insurrection in January, where we almost lost our nation’s capitol, and the major science denial around stopping a deadly virus has possibly altered your thinking and rendered you incapable, putting your own narrow interests above the will of the people or what’s best for a healthy and vibrant democracy.”
Rebecca Hutchinson of Deerfield spoke of the Republicans’ failure to honor the constitutional amendment calling for the state to award representatives to every community that has a high enough population to support a seat. Speaking of her own district, she said Deerfield is grouped with two other towns, but none of the elected representatives came in first in her town.
“To make it worse,” she said, “one of those who won district-wide came in fourth in our town. They weren’t even in the top three. … So what is happening is people are getting elected by the other towns. So it’s not only that we don’t get to vote for a single representative to represent Deerfield. It’s actually worse than that because people in that district elect people that we know very well and don’t want and reject time and time again.”
Hutchinson argued that each of the towns has enough of a population to have their own representatives, “then we would actually have an opportunity to elect people who represent us.”
Several speakers argued that the majority party was only looking to expand its power.
Bruce Burke of Pittsfield referred to Gov. Sununu’s decision to run for re-election rather than seek a U.S. Senate seat. “That’s despite the fact that people like Sen. Cruz, Sen. MacDonald, McConnell put tremendous pressure on him. I think, in the end, our governor realized it wasn’t about Gov. Sununu. It was just about power. And I think, in the end, he chose to rise above politics for this moment and look to serve his state; that it isn’t just to secure power. …
“I would ask us to serve the interest of the state and not simply the interests of politics,” Burke concluded.
Committee Chair Barbara Griffin, R-Goffstown, noted that their work is part of the legislative process, and their recommendation will go to the state Senate where senators are crafting their own redistricting plan. The Senate plan will come to the House and the two bodies will work out a final plan that Griffin expects to come to a vote in January.
“I want to thank you all for coming tonight to this public information session and speaking to us on it, and travel safely home. Good night,” she said as the meeting adjourned.