CONCORD, NH — The state’s two Congressional districts will look different after the House Special Committee on Redistricting voted down party lines Tuesday to approve the Republicans’ proposal.
Under the plan approved 8-7, about one-quarter of the state’s population and 75 communities would shift congressional districts.
Supporters of the plan say the change will better group communities of interest including political philosophy and make election-time races more competitive instead of dominated by Democratic candidates.
But Democrats called the changes the 2021 symbol for gerrymandering that seeks to ensure Republicans control one district and Democrats the other as the state Republican Party chair promised earlier this year.
For the past three elections, Democrats have won both Congressional seats.
The committee also voted down party lines 8-7 to approve redrawing the political boundaries for the 400 House seats. Democrats and Republicans agreed on plans for Belknap, Grafton and Sullivan counties, but not for the other seven counties.
Democrats presented plans to give more communities their own representatives as required by a recent amendment to the state constitution and emphasized connecting communities of interests.
And they said the Republicans’ plan short-changes the state’s largest city, Manchester, which should have 33 or 34 representatives, but would have only 32 under the GOP proposal.
However, Republicans said their plan would provide a fairer map for the state as a whole and not just centered on counties and cities and towns.
The vote to approve new county commission districts for nine of the 10 counties — Strafford County elects its three county commissioners at large — had more bipartisan support, as the plan was approved on a 10-5 vote.
All three plans will be before the House in the upcoming session and the committee is expected to fine-tune its proposals after cities have finalized their ward lines.
The Senate will redraw its own boundaries as well as the five Executive Council districts, but has yet to release any proposals.
The plan approved for congressional districts would move Republican-leaning towns along the southern border into the first congressional district from Hudson to Plaistow along with some towns east of Concord, while moving Democratic-leaning communities along the eastern border with Maine from Rochester to Portsmouth into the second district.
Rep. Ross Berry, R-Manchester, who presented the plan, said the proposal meets all state and federal constitutional requirements.
“The notion out there that this is uncompetitive is just not true,” he said, noting if the district were in place for the 2020 election the Republican would have won the first district by barely 1 percent.
He said for the last five elections since the last redistricting, Democrats have won 90 percent of the Congressional races, noting that is not competitive.
“Once you actually look under the hood of the current congressional maps,” Berry said, “they are not competitive, they simply are not.”
He and other Republicans said the plan is better and fairer than what is now in place.
Democrats disagreed, and presented a plan that moved one community, Hampstead, from the first to the second district to adjust to population changes, but that plan was voted down along party lines 8-7.
Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, said she proposed an independent redistricting commission three times — twice it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu and once did not pass the House — because both parties want to put their “finger on the scale” and tilt the maps to their advantage.
“We are left with a situation, while we are legislators not doctors,” Smith said, “it is still relevant to say ‘first let us do no harm’ and then go on from there.”
She noted a national organization drew maps for every state and the one they drew for New Hampshire to best benefit Republicans was the GOP’s proposal, and she noted it also said it benefited Democrats.
“In good conscience I cannot be part of supporting a map that predetermines Republicans’ or Democrats’ success.”
She noted since the late 1800s, the districts have looked much like they do now.
Now Republicans are proposing a major change in the district that will affect about 360,000 residents in 75 communities.
“Those are dramatic changes and there ought to be dramatic reasons to make those changes,” Smith said. “I ask all my colleagues to think carefully about what is proposed here and if this dramatic change is necessary and appropriate to carry out our obligations to all the citizens of this state.”
Former state Supreme Court chief justice and now Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Windham, defended the proposed map, and tried to counter criticism of the proposal.
He said the legislature always redraws the political boundaries so to say citizens should pick their politician and not politician picking their voters, has no substance.
Democrats and others have called for community interests to be considered, Lynn noted, but do not want to consider one important one, political like-mindedness, which Democrats argued before the state Supreme Court.
And he took issue with the contention that competitive districts would produce better, more moderate candidates, when both parties’ primaries tend to nominate candidates from the edges and not the center.
“Forcing candidates to the center discourages reform and new ideas,” Lynn said “and is similar to cancel culture.”
He made a similar argument about disenfranchising voters if the districts favor one candidate from each party. The biggest disenfranchisement of voters is when both districts lean Democratic and Republicans are left without representation, he said.
Former Nashua City Clerk and Rep. Paul Bergeron, D-Manchester, said Republicans have not mentioned any other communities of interest except political leanings, not economic or cultural and it has led to what looks like what someone described to him is a boy begging with a cup.
“I don’t know what this is going to be called,” Bergeron said, “but it’s going to become a 2021 symbol for gerrymandering.”
The committee’s vote to approve the plan was criticized by groups following the process.
“These egregiously corrupt and gerrymandered maps are a threat to our democracy, plain and simple,” said 603 Forward Chair Lucas S. Meyer. “Granite Staters from both parties have repeatedly condemned these maps as a slap in the face to every citizen of our state because they allow politicians to pick their voters.”
He called for Sununu to veto the maps if they or any other gerrymandered map reach his desk.
The committee was scheduled to meet Wednesday but finished its work Tuesday and will not meet again until after the data is available for city wards.