Editorial: Take politics out of redistricting
Back in 2012, a year when the Republicans held super-majorities in the New Hampshire House and Senate, party officials were pessimistic about their ability to hold onto the Concord-area seat on the New Hampshire Executive Council. And so, as GOP legislators redrew election maps to account for population shifts that year, they essentially sacrificed District 2 – filling it with Democratic-leaning communities – in order to improve their chances in other districts. And that is no doubt how District 2 ended up with boundaries described by a Democratic lawmaker that year as resembling “a dragon that has swallowed a medium-sized mammal.”
(The ploy didn’t work, as New Hampshire’s notoriously fickle voters elected three Democrats and just two Republicans to the council that year.)
Such redistricting shenanigans go on all the time, all over the country, at all levels of government, as members of both political parties use map-making to protect incumbents, reward allies, punish enemies, reduce competition and essentially handpick their own voters. At the national level, such conduct is partly to blame for the growth of “safe” seats in the U.S. House, districts from which lawmakers have little incentive to go to Washington and actually work with members of the opposing party and strike compromises.
And that’s why new legislation that will get a public airing in the New Hampshire Senate next week is such a good idea.
Senate Bill 314 would create an independent legislative redistricting commission. Although the Legislature and governor would still need to sign off on new districts every 10 years, the actual work of drawing new lines on the map would be taken out of the hands of partisan office-holders. Commission membership would not be skewed to the party in power at the State House. And members would not be allowed to consider the fate of incumbents as they did their work.
The commission would include two members appointed by the governor – one from the governor’s party and one from the party that came in second in the last governor’s race. There would be a member appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The House speaker, the president of the Senate and the minority leaders in both houses would each get one appointment. In other words, even-steven.
None of the commissioners could hold partisan public office or political party office. None could be relatives or employees of members of the Legislature or Congress.
And as the map-makers did their work, they would be under orders to think strictly about population – not about the impact on a political party or incumbent legislator. They would be forbidden from using the maps to augment or dilute the voting strength of minority groups. They’d be prohibited from considering the addresses of incumbent legislators, the political affiliations of registered voters or previous election results as they did their work.
Quite a breath of fresh air, isn’t it?
Truly, similar legislation is needed at the national level. Without it, some members of Congress are elected from fair maps drawn by independent commissions like the one proposed in New Hampshire while others are elected from districts drawn specifically for their benefit. How can that be fair?
Indeed, a bill called the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, which would require state legislatures to appoint independent redistricting commissions free of partisan manipulation has been kicking around for years – not surprisingly without much momentum.
The idea of waiting for members of Congress to act in the interest of citizens – and perhaps against their own self-interest – is a losing proposition these days. New Hampshire may as well act at the state level and, in the process, inspire others to do the same.