New Hampshire redistricting mired by partisan divisions

State officials remain split on the decennial drawing of congressional boundaries as the June 10 filing deadline looms.

by Noah Durham | 4/26/22 5:00am

Source: Can Stock Photo

New Hampshire’s once-in-a-decade congressional redistricting process is currently underway, with Democratic and Republican state lawmakers in disagreement over how to draw representative boundaries.

The news comes after the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a proposal on March 17 that would make the first congressional district, currently held by Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., more Republican, and the second congressional district, currently held by Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., more Democratic. Under the plan, about 25% of New Hampshire voters would switch districts, according to New Hampshire Public Radio. Hanover’s position in the second district would remain unaffected.

In response, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, proposed his own map on March 22 that would preserve swing district competitiveness rather than carving out two partisan enclaves. In a letter to state Senate president Chuck Morse and house speaker Sherman Packard, Sununu wrote that his version “keeps our districts competitive, passes the smell test and holds our incumbents accountable so that no one elected official is immune from challengers or constituent services.” 

In an emailed statement to The Dartmouth, the governor’s press office wrote that Sununu “remains in contact with legislative leaders, has encouraged alternative approaches in addition to the map proposed by him in April and is optimistic that a fair solution will be reached.”

New Hampshire congressional maps are required by the New Hampshire Department of State to be finalized by the June 10 filing deadline — the last day congressional candidates are able to enter into a race. As of publication, New Hampshire is one of four states nationally without a finalized congressional map. Republican House member Ross Berry, who represents part of Manchester and Litchfield, said that the deadline is subject to change, should it be necessary.

“New Hampshire law allows the Secretary of State to move the filing deadline,” Berry said. “We’re obviously going to try to still make that [deadline].”

Government professor and Democratic representative Russell Muirhead, who represents Hanover and Lyme, expressed disappointment with the plan passed by the state legislature. According to Muirhead, less competitive districts will lead to more polarizing candidates, which exacerbates political tribalism.

“Safe districts select for extremists because there’s almost no way that in a safe Democratic district, that Democratic candidate can lose, or in a safe Republican district that the Republican representative can lose,” Muirhead said. “The primary electorate can mold the general election, then hold the seat safely. Extremes don’t represent the sensible center of either the American electorate — or the New Hampshire electorate — very effectively.”

Though Muirhead said he thought Sununu’s map did not “visually represent” an obvious attempt at gerrymandering, he said he still had reservations with the governor’s proposal.  

“I think it still reflects an obvious effort to move Republicans around so that we have less competitive districts,” he said.

However, Berry defended the maps passed by the legislature, as he said that his definition of competitive was “based on results.”

“So, when they say the current maps are competitive, I just got to call BS on that,” Berry said. “[The House Republicans] were the only ones that produced a competitive map. We produced a map that the Democrats would likely win, and we produced another district where Republicans had a chance.”

Over the course of the last redistricting cycle, only one Republican has won a  New Hampshire congressional race, when Republican Frank Guinta represented the first district from 2015 to 2017. Berry said this fact indicated Democrats had won in “90%” of New Hampshire congressional races over the last decade. 

Without an agreed-upon map, the New Hampshire Supreme Court intervened on April 11, appointing Stanford Law professor Nathaniel Persiley as a “special master” to evaluate redistricting efforts. The move came after former Speaker of the House Terie Norelli, along with other plaintiffs, brought a lawsuit against the Republican legislature’s approved map. 

Berry said he wished the Court had not involved itself in the redistricting process, which he said was “jumping the gun.” 

“It’s already a politically fractious process, and I don’t feel that they made it any easier,” Berry said.

The redistricting process has energized voters from around the state and across the political spectrum, Muirhead said. As a state representative, Muirhead said he has received considerable feedback from his constituents on the issue.

“[My constituents] want maps that pass the common sense test,” Muirhead said. “They just want a fair politics that responds to the common sense interests of voters. They think gerrymandering skews that and distorts it, and I think they’re right.”