Advice to Gov. Sununu: An Independent Redistricting Commission Would Be Good for NH

HB 706 would establish an independent redistricting commission and is intended to reduce or eliminate the contentious and partisan atmosphere that has surrounded previous, post-census redistricting efforts. The bill is now before the Governor for his approval or veto.

I served on the Election Law Subcommittee that worked on HB 706 and was pleased that our efforts received support from the Committee and was recommended as Ought to Pass with Amendment on a bipartisan, 20 – 0 Committee vote.  Although most House Republicans voted against the bill, it passed by a margin of 218 – 123. The bill then went to the Senate where it came out of committee with a bipartisan, 5 – 0 vote recommending Ought to Pass with further amendment, and passed the Senate by a voice vote. The House concurred with the Senate amendment by a vote of 208 – 137.

The following Opinion piece in support of HB 706 appeared in the NH Union Leader (July 25, 2019) and was submitted by Bradford Cook, a Manchester attorney, a Republican and chair of the New Hampshire Ballot Law Commission, and John T. Broderick Jr., a former N.H. Supreme Court justice and former executive director of the Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership and Public Policy. It is an effective explanation, as the article’s headline stated, as to “Why HB 706 is good for New Hampshire”:

“That’s all we’re asking for: an end to the antidemocratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering congressional districts . . . The fact is, gerrymandering has become a national scandal.” — President Ronald Reagan

‘GERRYMANDERING’ wasn’t a word most voters knew much about a year ago. But Ronald Reagan was right — it has been a scandal for years, and it has been getting progressively worse. Extreme cases of voting district manipulation by both parties in congressional districts in North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania brought it to the public’s attention, culminating in a Supreme Court case last month.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear egregious cases of gerrymandering by Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in North Carolina, instead suggesting that legislation by the states should be one of the paths to fixing this widespread problem.

While New Hampshire is not as extreme as those cases, and is lucky in having two congressional districts which have been “swing districts” for years, it is not immune from partisan efforts to manipulate the voting districts to the advantage of the party in power. We have, after all, 24 state senate districts, 400 legislators, and five executive councilors in addition to our members of Congress.

The New Hampshire Constitution empowers the legislature to redistrict, but the last effort in 2010 was so contentious and partisan that it took two years and a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision to settle. And still the districts were awkward at best, and unfairly drawn at worst.

Executive Council District 2, bordering three states, is the most commonly cited example, stretching from Hinsdale, in extreme southwest New Hampshire, to Portsmouth in the east. It has been cited as an example of “packing” a district so that other districts would be more reliable for one party. How was this map created? We have no idea, because the process was secret from the voters and from the Secretary of State — all perfectly legal by current New Hampshire statute.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, the New Hampshire legislature had already crafted three bills this term addressing gerrymandering and fair redistricting, responding to demands by the voters. The HB 706 nonpartisan redistricting commission bill not only survived, but passed by significant bipartisan margins in its House and Senate committees and in full sessions.

The commission would be comprised of 15 commissioners: Five Republicans, five Democrats, and five independents and minority party members. The commission is empaneled similar to a jury, with the major parties able to object to each other’s nominees. The commission must conduct its business in public, and must hold at least one public hearing in each county prior to and after proposed maps are drawn. And after public scrutiny, the maps are submitted to the legislature to execute its constitutional obligation.

The New Hampshire way: Bipartisan, fair and above board.

As a practical political matter, with the swings in control of the legislature in recent years, each party should recognize the protection such a process has for it against a partisan effort by the legislature, if controlled by the other party.

Governor Sununu, we ask that you sign HB 706.

It would be good for Republicans, good for Democrats, level the playing field, and make New Hampshire a shining example to other states on how to improve the political process and faith in it.”

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