Every ten years officials must redraw voting districts to reflect population changes, according to the U.S. Census. Right now New Hampshire’s redistricting process is held up at multiple levels, with the governor and Legislature at odds and lawsuits before the state Supreme Court. New Hampshire candidates are scheduled to file their first campaign paperwork in June, so the clock is ticking to finalize new voting districts. Will the governor and legislators agree on redistricted maps that meet constitutional muster, or will the courts step in? If the courts act, will they keep current maps in place for now or will they draw completely new maps? Whatever the decision, it will have a big impact on who represents you. Looking back at the last three rounds of redistricting in New Hampshire provides some examples of how this year’s redistricting might play out.
A review of redistricting in the nineties shows the process was not always so partisan and contentious in New Hampshire. For example, the committee of legislators tasked with redrawing U.S. Congressional districts included an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, even though Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and governor’s office.
There was even a battle in 1991 to restrict the power of the Senate president to remove anyone for the committee for reasons other than “incapacity to serve, death or lack of attendance.” The concern was that the Senate president might bully committee members to vote one way or another.
The final 1992 plans to redraw the state Senate, executive council, and U.S. House districts were signed into law with minimal controversy (although looking back some criticized the maps for protecting incumbents from both parties).
The plan to redistrict the state House of Representatives did result in a lawsuit. Portsmouth argued that the city’s population merited another representative in the House. In particular, the lawsuit argued that Salem should lose a seat to make the representation more equal between the two municipalities. The courts ultimately ruled in favor of the original House redistricting and against Portsmouth.
The process to redraw the U.S. Congressional and state Executive Council districts in 2002 wasn’t very controversial. The process to redraw the state House and Senate was a mess.
First, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the legislature’s plans to redistrict the state House and Senate. She argued the plans were “a classic case of partisan gerrymandering at its worst.” Republican legislators did not have enough votes to override her veto and there was no compromise in sight, so redistricting ended up in the courts.
The state Supreme Court asked for redistricting proposals from all the interested parties. The court then rejected every one, writing, “all of the submitted plans openly embrace political agendas.” The court ultimately appointed a technical advisor and drew its own maps.
In 2004 Republicans once again controlled the House, Senate, and governor’s office, and they took that opportunity to redraw the districts created by the court. Democrats filed a lawsuit arguing that it was unconstitutional to redistrict more than once every ten years, after each U.S. Census. Republicans argued the court’s 2002 maps were “remedial,” not permanent, and the Legislature was well within its rights to redistrict again in 2004. The court ultimately sided with the Republicans.
But wait – there’s more! In 2006 legislators introduced a state constitutional amendment that generally requires each town or ward to have its own dedicated representative, so long as there are enough voters living there. The amendment specifically states, “When the population of any town or ward, according to the last federal census, is within a reasonable deviation from the ideal population for one or more representative seats the town or ward shall have its own district of one or more representative seats.”
This 2006 amendment was partly motivated by the court’s 2002 redistricting, which often grouped towns into larger districts. The amendment ideally ensures that representatives are attuned to the unique interests of their ward or town.
The amendment sailed through the House and Senate and passed with a super-majority on the 2006 general election ballot.
This new constitutional amendment prompted yet another lawsuit. The town of Canaan argued the Legislature should redistrict again, before the 2010 Census, to fulfill the requirements of the 2006 constitutional amendment. The court ruled against Canaan and said that the amendment would only apply to the 2010 redistricting process.
After the 2010 U.S. Census, Republicans once again controlled the state House and Senate, while Democrat John Lynch sat in the governor’s office. Lynch signed the Republican plans to redistrict the state Senate, state Executive Council, and U.S. Congressional districts, but vetoed the plan to redistrict the state House of Representatives. His decision is arguably summed up in one sentence from his veto message: “The House-passed plan unnecessarily breaks-up towns and wards.”
This time Republicans had enough votes to override the governor’s veto in the Legislature, but the battle wasn’t over. The City of Manchester and several other parties filed a lawsuit challenging the state House map. Manchester argued that the map deprived their city of equal representation, since some wards were grouped with neighboring Litchfield in a voting district. This echoed some of Gov. Lynch’s concerns about unnecessarily splitting up municipalities with common interests. Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued that towns such as Gilford and Meredith should have been given their own, unique representatives rather than combined into larger districts. That latter argument was based on the new 2006 constitutional amendment.
The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the original Republican redistricting for the state House of Representatives. Their general argument was that the Legislature did not make any “unreasonable” decisions when they drew new districts. It is impossible to create districts that are exactly equal in population, so there are always going to be trade-offs between towns, cities, and wards. The court also noted that there is no constitutional requirement to combine communities of interest into the same district.
This year Gov. Sununu signed redistricted maps for the state House, state Senate, and Executive Council, but there are lawsuits challenging all three. The lawsuit challenging the state House map comes from Dover. The city argues that Ward 4 has been denied the unique representation it deserves by combining it in a district with Madbury, Lee, and Durham. Based on the court ruling from 2012, Dover may be facing an uphill battle in the courts.
The lawsuit against the state Senate and Executive Council maps brings new arguments to the table. That lawsuit asserts that the maps are drawn to favor Republicans so heavily that it violates voters’ rights of free speech and equal protection under the New Hampshire Constitution. If the court agrees with this argument, we will return to the scenario in 2002 when the court invited proposals and worked with a technical advisor to take over redistricting.
The lawsuit over the U.S. Congressional redistricting is even more like 2002, with the governor and legislators unable to agree on a plan. If Gov. Sununu and legislators do not approve a U.S. Congressional map by the end of May, there’s a good chance the court will draw a map for them. Right now candidates are scheduled to file paperwork starting June 1. That filing date can be pushed a little later, but ultimately ballots need to be printed by July 30 in time to be sent to overseas voters.
Expect speedy court actions here.