A handful of speakers — half of whom were elected officials — addressed the N.H. House Special Committee on Redistricting on Tuesday night, when the body convened in Keene to seek public input as the state works to redraw New Hampshire’s political boundaries.
While those who spoke raised various points, they expressed a common desire to see districts drawn fairly and in ways that preserve commonality among the communities included in them. Rindge resident Jeff Dickler pointed specifically to his senate and executive council districts, saying that his town shares representatives with places that have different interests.
“We’re grouped with Nashua,” he said. “Now what in the heck do we have in common with Nashua? We are rural; Nashua is urban. We got reps from that area that have no clue about living in Rindge.”
He said that with a population of about 6,000 people, Rindge should have its own representative. He noted that the town easily passed a petition article during its 2021 town meeting calling for a redistricting process free of gerrymandering.
The House committee is holding meetings in each of the state’s 10 counties to give locals a chance to weigh in on the federally required 10-year redistricting process, with plans to stop in Claremont on Wednesday and North Conway on Thursday. In November, the committee will make a recommendation on new district lines, which would then become a bill and enter the legislative process.
The 15-member committee is a bipartisan group of state representatives who are responsible for drafting the boundaries of New Hampshire’s 400 House seats and two congressional districts, using population data from the 2020 Census. Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, the committee’s vice chairman, and Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, are the two Monadnock Region lawmakers on the panel, which includes eight Republicans and seven Democrats.
Smith said pieces of information about specific concerns, such as Dickler’s, are just the sort of thing the committee is looking for as it weighs its options.
Though Tuesday’s meeting was meant to reach Cheshire County residents, some people came from other parts of the state, including Spec Bowers of Grantham, who called attention to what he described as a common misconception that state law requires all larger towns to have their own House district.
Instead, he explained, the law says that towns with populations that extend beyond a “reasonable deviation” of how many people should be represented by a single person are supposed to get their own district. With 400 seats in the House, each district covers more than 3,000 residents on average. Bowers urged the committee to be cautious about putting larger towns in their own districts.
“I have seen maps that started out by making every large town its own district,” he said. “To then fix unreasonable deviations, they had to produce large and ugly floterial districts that defeated the intent to have locally elected representatives.” A floterial district is one that groups multiple municipalities together which, on their own, are too small to be entitled to a representative.
However, representatives from Open Democracy Action, a Concord-based organization aiming to reform the influence of money in politics, were on hand during Tuesday’s meeting, and Deputy Director Brian Beihl said ignoring towns that have large enough populations to warrant being in their own district is a problem. Beihl, of Alton Bay, said that last time the state redrew district lines in 2010, Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Jaffrey, Rindge, Swanzey and Walpole were all large enough to get their own district but didn’t.
Open Democracy Action is working on a mapping project designed to get citizens’ input on what new lines should look like, and the organization’s proposals were on display in the in the lobby at the courthouse before the meeting. The project creates maps based on community assets such as school districts, heath care, emergency or municipal services, as well as community issues such as environmental contamination, poverty and substance misuse.
Keene resident Ian Burke, who is working with Open Democracy on its mapping project, said that representation is most effective when representatives are able to connect with their constituents and share their interests and experiences.
“I feel that redistricting for party and electoral advantage marginalizes actual communities in favor of shared national party affiliation,” he said. “And I think that that makes a less effective Legislature and a less effective state government.”
Meanwhile, state Sen. Jay Kahn, D–Keene, brought up several concerns he’d like the committee to consider moving forward, including one of the state’s most notorious oddly shaped district: Executive Council District 2. The district, currently represented by Cinde Warmington, D–Concord, spans from the Vermont border, to the Seacoast, encompassing communities ranging from Keene to Somersworth.
He also touched on his own senate district, noting that while he represents 15 out of Cheshire County’s 23 municipalities, the others are spread among districts 8, 9 and 12.
“The remaining eight are peeled off into three other senate districts, so there is very little influence in those other three senate districts of those towns,” Kahn said.
On the other hand, two of Cheshire House District 1’s representatives — Paul Berch, D–Westmoreland, and Cathryn Harvey, D–Chesterfield — said they were happy with the districting in their part of the state. Harvey said it’s a good example of where the districting process has not failed to take commonality into account.
“It’s not broken,” she said. “Please don’t try to fix it.”
This article has been changed to correct a point about the number of N.H. House members who represent Cheshire District 1.