Click the link above to watch the full interview on NH PBS’s The State We’re In.
The State We’re In host Melanie Plenda, director of Research and Analysis for Citizens Count and host of the podcast “$100 Plus Mileage” Anna Brown, Assistant Professor at Plymouth State University Dr. John Lappie, Republican state Rep. Ross Berry representing south Manchester and Litchfield, and Democrat state Rep. Marjorie Smith representing Durham, discuss Congressional redistricting, what the competing proposals are and what it means for New Hampshire.
This content has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview above, or on NH PBS’s The State We’re In.
Melanie Plenda: When we talk about redistricting for the state’s two congressional seats, what does that mean? What happens? Anna, can you give us some background?
Anna Brown: One of the most important, fundamental parts of our democracy is the concept of one person, one vote. That means every district for each elected official is supposed to include roughly the same number of people. After the US Census has completed every 10 years, the process of redistricting gives elected officials the opportunity to redraw those districts, to make sure that districts have similar population. In New Hampshire, our US House of Rrepresentative districts are a big focus of this redistricting debate. Ideally, the goal is to keep the two districts similar in population, but partisan interests come into play. It’s interesting to note the courts have ruled in New Hampshire that some amount of partisan impacts are to be expected, and it doesn’t necessarily have to focus on grouping communities with similar interests. The focus is really on equal population.
Melanie Plenda: John, why as a voter does this matter? What makes it important?
Dr. John Lappie: What’s happening here is what we call gerrymandering, which is when you draw the district boundaries in such a way as to benefit one political party. Democrats can be just as guilty when they have the opportunity, but in this case, the Republicans have the opportunity right now. Essentially under the current plans that we’re seeing out of the legislature, we would go from having two very competitive US House districts to a Republican district and a Democratic district. Rather than having competitive general elections as we historically have in both districts, the Democratic primary in district two and the Republican primary in district one would become more important. The general election wouldn’t quite be a foregone conclusion because there are limits to how much you can gerrymander when you only have two seats to work with, but would certainly make the general election a lot less important.
We know that when the primary becomes more important and the general election becomes less important, that that tends to produce more extreme elected officials. If you’re a Republican who’s only concern about losing your office is losing a Republican primary, then you’re incentivized to be extremely conservative and be more liberal if you are a Democrat. Gerrymandering’s goal is to insulate elected officials from changes in public opinion, to make it harder to throw people out of office if you don’t like what they are doing. If you want an egregious example of that at the state legislative level, look at Wisconsin, where in 2018 Democrats won 54% of the vote, but only won one third of the seats for the state legislature. That’s how extreme gerrymandering can get and limit the ability of ordinary citizens to impact their elected officials.
Melanie Plenda: Anna, can you walk us through the process here in New Hampshire, what’s been happening these last few months?
Anna Brown: In New Hampshire, the process of redistricting starts in the state legislature. As the professor noted, that’s controlled by Republicans in both the House and Senate. Governor Sununu is also Republican, but he has made comments that the redistricting process needs to pass the “smell test.” Now “smell” is not a scientific measure, but he’s made clear that he’s not interested in maps that are too partisan, too gerrymandered, so we’ve seen several maps come before the legislature. The first proposal Governor Sununu said doesn’t pass the smell test and vetoed it, so the legislature revised it. They came up with a new district that was focused along the I-93 corridor for the first district, and then the rest of the state was almost a horseshoe shape around it.
That one didn’t pass the Senate, so then a conference committee of Representatives and Senators came together and they came up with another map, which has fewer changes than the previous proposals but actually moves Manchester and Nashua into the second district together, which would make quite a large part of that population very urban as opposed to all the other rural towns. Interestingly it would move Chris Pappas, the current first district Representative, hometown Manchester into the second district. Law allows Chris Pappas and anyone else to run in either district regardless of where they live, but it’s tricky and Governor Sununu hasn’t weighed in if he’s going to sign this or not. Meanwhile, some legislators filed a lawsuit and the court has given the legislature and Governor Sununu until the end of May to decide on maps. But if Governor Sununu vetos this last proposal, which moves Manchester and Nashua into the second district together, then we’re going to see the court step in and appoint an official to draw their own maps using the “least change approach.” They would be looking to basically keep the districts the same and only move towns if absolutely necessary to equalize the population.
Melanie Plenda: New Hampshire isn’t the only state redrawing its districts. John, how are plans for redistricting going across the country?
Dr. John Lappie: Heading into this cycle, there were a lot of concerns that the Republicans who won more state legislatures in 2020, especially in purple states like Pennsylvania, would gerrymander in such a way as to create a durable Republican House majority for the next 10 years. The Democrats worst fears have not come to pass in part because in some states, Republicans maxed out their gerrymandering in 2010 partially due to pro-democratic gerrymanders in states like Illinois, where they have basically eliminated some Republican districts. The Democrats worst fears have not really come to pass but they have suffered a series of court defeats in recent months. The US Supreme court has said partisan gerrymandering is not unconstitutional, but that it could violate state law, while in New York and Maryland for the Democrats who controlled legislature were trying to eliminate some Republican US House districts.
The state courts actually ruled that that was an illegal gerrymander under state law, losing the Democrats the ability to create more seats because the courts imposed fairer maps. There are something like 210 Republican-leaning districts in the US House versus something like 180 for the Democrats. It’s going to be harder for the Democrats than Republicans to win the US House in the next decade, but it’s not going to be impossible like they feared. The number of competitive seats is declining, meaning there are likely to be even fewer moderates in Congress to try and bridge the gap between very conservative and very liberal members.
Melanie Plenda: Anna Brown, director of research and analysis for Citizens Count and host of the podcast “$100 plus mileage,” and Dr. John Lappie, assistant professor of political science at Plymouth State University, thank you both so much for joining us today. Now we turn to state representative Ross Barry, a Republican representing South Manchester and Litchfield. You served on the House special committee on redistricting and released your own proposed map earlier this year. Can you tell us about the committee and what that work was like, and what were some of the challenges there?
Rep. Ross Barry: The challenges are, you can never make everyone happy. We have a very slim majority in the House for Republicans so everything we do, we’re trying to make sure that we have the best chance to pass it because the opposition party, no matter what you do, is going to vote against it. The first map that came out, we did a lot of vote counting of if we lose this town, are they going to vote against it? If we do this, will they do that? The second map that I released, I took all of that and threw it out the window. I said, you know what? I’m going to bring forward a map that I think best represents New Hampshire, and politics be damned. If it passes, it passes; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Melanie Plenda: Can you talk to us a little bit about that? What about it made you feel that it best represented New Hampshire?
Rep. Ross Barry: I’m a data guy and I looked at a lot of numbers and I also listened to the public testimony that we heard. I asked a lot of people from the public who have been involved with this before I released my map. I said, what are your criteria? What do you look for? They said, we want you to value county lines. We want you to look at communities of interest. We want a district that can be competitive. To define competitive, they said use the 2020 election results for our benchmark for competitive. I went out and I drew a district that did all those things, expecting to pull back the veil on them and show that they weren’t actually acting in good faith. I brought forward a map that kept eight out of the 10 counties together, kept every economic community of interest together, and a district where the Republican candidate would have won in congressional district one by 300 votes or 0.05%. Then of course that wasn’t competitive and then county lines didn’t matter and economic communities didn’t matter.
Melanie Plenda: Was there ever a point on the committee where there were a few folks who want to take into account how things are changing in New Hampshire and who would best represent the people? Are there other folks that you could get together with and take out the politics of it and discuss it on that basis? Was there ever any of that or any chance of that so that it’s really not about politics, but it’s about what actually best represents the folks in New Hampshire?
Rep. Ross Barry: Politics is representing people in New Hampshire. That’s the entire political process. It’s unfortunate because redistricting is an inherently political process and by signing up to do this, I kind of knew that eventually the slings and arrows would come out. The reality of the situation is that I don’t believe that we are currently represented well federally; I don’t believe we’re represented fairly either. 47% of this state in the last 10 years has voted for a Republican Congressman and they’ve been represented 10% of the time. Of course the Democratic party believes that that’s fair. I do not believe that it’s fair. The map that I brought forward, they would’ve won 60% of the time and that 60 percent’s a lot closer to the 53% vote loads that they’ve been getting than the 90% that they’ve been getting in terms of seat representation.
I think that by putting forward a map that prioritizes the I-93 corridor, which is the bulk of the population of the state and it’s in a community of interest, we had a map that represented New Hampshire well. Unfortunately – and this is the problem with drawing congressional districts in New Hampshire – you can only do one of two things: you can draw a district that looks nice, or you can draw a district that functions well. You cannot do both. I value compactness the least, because I think how something looks should be less important than what’s actually inside of it. I think it’s disappointing that it never honestly got a fair chance to stand on its own merits, and there were a lot of people who looked at it after and went, there’s actually something to this. This is matching the population distribution of the state. People went, it looks kind of ugly, but this actually makes a lot of sense.
Melanie Plenda: We really appreciate your insights today. Republican state representative Ross Barry, representing South Manchester and Litchfield, thank you so much for joining us. Now, we’ll speak with state Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Democrat representing Durham. Can you tell us about the Democrats plan for redistricting?
Rep. Marjorie Smith: Looking at the congressional district map in the state of New Hampshire, there have been minimal changes in population between the existing districts since the last census. In order to respect the principle of one person, one vote, the Democratic plan required the movement of only one town with a population of 8,998. I think in order to make sure that the population in the first and the second districts were as close as possible, and our plan meant that we ended up with the difference of 51 people.
Melanie Plenda: Can you talk a little bit about why Democrats favored this plan and what’s the objection to the current Republican plan?
Rep. Marjorie Smith: We favored this plan because it’s fair, it’s equitable, it meets federal and state constitutional and statutory requirements, and it respects all voters – Democrat, Republican, and undeclared. The governor with two previous Republican iterations has said that the plans didn’t pass the smell test. We don’t know what he’s going to do about this one. I don’t think that it is any more appealing in terms of the smell test than the other two. The Republican plan moves 34 cities and towns from one district to another. That is almost 315,000 people between the districts. This is in a state that has about 1.3 million people, so that’s about a quarter of the total population. The plan puts the three largest cities – Nashua, Manchester, and Concord – in the same district. The decision was based on political calculations. I’ve heard complaints that this map places both incumbents in the same district. My personal view is that we should be respecting the interest of the voters, not of elected officials. I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that the two incumbents end up in the same district, except that the decision was based exclusively on political calculations, not on fairness.
Melanie Plenda: Proponents would argue that this plan would make the district more competitive. Is that a bad thing? Do you agree with that?
Rep. Marjorie Smith: The question is whether the assumption is valid. The new plan shifts congressional district one roughly 3% towards Republicans and congressional district two to about three percentage points towards Democratic. My Republican colleague says that President Trump would’ve won congressional district one; the congressional was won by about 300 votes, but he didn’t mention that Biden would’ve won congressional district two by about 60,000 votes. We only have two congressional districts in this state. Only two, we’re not dealing with 3, 10,, or 48. If you try to pack more Republicans into one district, even a third grader doing simple math would understand that there will be more Democrats packed into the other district.
Their only hope is that maybe they could get one out of the two districts. If you’re going to play political games, I would think you could play it more effectively and try to get two districts, not one. The fact is that over the years, district one has gone back and forth since the last census between Republican and Democrat. The district that reflects the fact that this is a purple state. That’s good. We should have strong candidates running in both parties. The fact that one of the districts is Democratic isn’t so much because of an overpopulation of Democrats, I would suggest it’s because they didn’t have very good candidates on the Republican side because you can see on the other district that we were able to elect both Republicans and Democrats. This plan is not more competitive. It’s trying to tilt the balance, and I don’t think that’s right.
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