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House approves independent redistricting commission nearly on party lines

Monitor staff
Published: 2/28/2019 6:37:52 PM

An effort to remove partisanship from New Hampshire’s legislative redistricting process passed a key test Thursday. But the results were hardly bipartisan.

House Bill 706 passed 218-123, but only 16 members of the Republican minority voted in favor of the proposal, with 123 Republican members against.

Crafted by Durham Democrat Marjorie Smith, the bill would create an independent redistricting commission – a 15-member panel of New Hampshire voters that would divvy up the districts and present a proposal back to legislators.

Under New Hampshire’s Constitution, the state Legislature is tasked with redrawing districts, a process that happens once a decade after the latest results from the U.S. Census. Lawmakers determine the town-by-town makeup of the 24 state Senate districts, five Executive Council districts, two Congressional districts and 400 House districts.

But the process, led by the party in charge at the time of the redistricting, has had a turbulent history. Each of the past three redistricting efforts has produced a flurry of lawsuits, pitting towns, legislative members and citizens against each other over objected districts.

Smith’s bill would allow the secretary of state to choose 45 potential participants, a third affiliated with one major party, a third affiliated with another, and a third with no affiliation – narrowed down by random to three from each group. Those nine would then choose an additional six according to the same breakdown.

Among the factors the panel would have to consider: existing constitutional redistricting requirements, geographic integrity, fair representation of racial and language minorities and the preservation of “communities of interest.” The commission would also, of course, work to make sure the districts did not lean toward any one party.

Supporters of the bill argued that history justified the need to take the process out of politicians’ hands, even though the Legislature would still have the final say over the proposal.

“This history does not present a pretty picture,” said Rep. Wayne Moynihan, a Dummer Democrat. “It does present evidence of a need to change our system.”

Critics said the proper role resides with the Legislature, and said that no group could be truly free of partisanship

“It’s better to have the partisan process up front and center,” said Rep. Carol McGuire, an Epsom Republican.

The bill headed out of the House Election Law committee with a 20-0 recommendation to pass – a rarity for a committee often defined by partisan divisions. Democratic supporters had hoped that their majority status in the State House would convince Republicans to jump on board with an external commission ahead of the next effort, which will come after the 2020 elections.

But in the end, Thursday’s vote demonstrated a strong party-line split. Opponents, all of whom were Republicans, said the decision was made more to preserve the process than with any consideration of the potential power dynamics after the 2020 election.

Gov. Chris Sununu is also opposed; a spokesman said in December that the “current system works well,” adding that any disputes could be worked out in the court system.

Smith, however, called the bill a good-faith way for both parties to step away from power.

“The voters should be choosing their representatives, rather than legislators choosing who will have the opportunity of voting for them,” she said.

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