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My Turn: We must draw fair lines for redistricting

For the Monitor
Published: 4/30/2019 12:15:19 AM

Fair and impartial elections are the bedrock of our democracy, and every eligible voter in New Hampshire deserves a district that has been lawfully and justly drawn. As Granite State native Daniel Webster once said, “The right to choose a representative is every man’s portion of sovereign power.”

Every four years, we celebrate a special time when New Hampshire is thrust into the country’s spotlight for our first-in-the-nation presidential primary. And with the 2020 election looming and taking up much of our local news, Granite Staters are rightfully getting excited.

But amid this excitement, we cannot forget that 2020 will shape the country in a different way: It’s the year the next census will be conducted. The U.S. Constitution requires that every 10 years, every single person in the country is counted, and those numbers are used to apportion representatives.

Then, through a process called redistricting, the state legislatures use those numbers to draw new districts for state and federal offices. The districts are supposed to accurately represent the populations within them, who can then elect a representative to voice their concerns and opinions while in office. This state legislative session, House Bill 706 presents lawmakers with a crucial step toward ensuring that our new lines will be fairly drawn.

Historically, politicians from both sides of the aisle have been guilty of abusing the power of drawing district lines for partisan games. In one particularly egregious example, a gerrymander in Wisconsin in 2018 led to Republicans winning almost 64 percent of state assembly seats, despite receiving under 45 percent of the overall vote. In 2014, Democrats won 57 percent of the popular vote for Congress in Maryland, but won 87.5 percent of the seats.

As computers become more advanced, sophisticated algorithms allow map-makers to draw increasingly effective partisan gerrymanders to protect incumbents and draw themselves and their political allies into power. This power play is at the expense of the real will of the voters.

New Hampshire is not immune to these illegal and immoral efforts. In 2016, New Hampshire Public Radio analyzed election results for state Senate. Using a measure called the “efficiency gap” – a commonly accepted measure of gerrymandering based on the number of “wasted” votes each party receives – the analysis concluded that, in the 11 state Senate elections from 1994 to 2014, Republicans on average came out with 10 to 15 percent more seats in the Senate than a neutral map would have yielded.

While not as stark as in some other states, the map has tended to favor that party over the other. In 2012, for example, Democrats won more than half – 52 percent – of the popular vote, but only 11 of 24 seats. Whichever party controls the Legislature after the election could gerrymander the map further to favor their candidates. Fortunately, the Legislature is considering House Bill 706, which already passed the N.H. House of Representatives in February on a bipartisan vote. Currently, it is pending before the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee, which will hold a public hearing this week.

The bill is crucial to ensuring that our districts are drawn fairly, meaning that voters elect their representatives, rather than politicians choosing their voters. To do that, HB 706 would create an independent redistricting commission, tasked with drawing maps, made up of Democrats, Republicans and undeclared voters. The 15-member commission would have to approve maps with a supermajority of nine votes.

The bill also lays out the criteria that the commission must consider when drawing the maps, including that the maps must comply with the U.S. and New Hampshire constitutions, obey all state and federal laws, and must not have the effect of unduly favoring any political party, incumbent or candidate for office. Once the commission approves the maps, they would be sent to the Legislature to approve or disapprove.

In line with our state constitution, the state Legislature would have the last word on the maps, but with the recommendations of a nonpartisan commission.

We don’t know which party will have the majority in Concord after the next elections, but what we do know is ensuring that our lines are drawn fairly is a no-brainer for each political party.

Without an independent redistricting commission, any party in office may put its thumb on the scale for a decade to come.

Put simply, HB 706 is the right thing to do for voters, for our elected offices and for our democracy.

(Henry Klementowicz is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.)

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