The New Hampshire Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion issued Thursday ruled that the state’s current congressional districts, which have been in place since 2012, are unconstitutional given shifts in the state population.
This means the maps can’t be used moving forward, the ruling states. The court also held that if the Legislature and governor don’t reach an agreement on new districts by the legislative deadline to do so, the court will intervene and draw a new map. May 19 is the last day for lawmakers to finalize negotiations.
Since 2010, the population of the 1st Congressional District has outpaced that of the 2nd District. While the two districts had a difference in population of only four people in 2020, they now differ by 17,945, according to 2020 census data. Keeping the populations the same across districts is meant to ensure that each person’s vote carries the same weight, something the current maps no longer do, the court found.
“A claim that a population disparity between congressional districts unconstitutionally dilutes a plaintiff’s vote is justiciable,” the justices ruled.
The court dismissed the state’s argument that the state Legislature has exclusive authority over the congressional districts.
And the court determined it would use what’s called the “least change” method to redraw congressional maps, in which the court makes minor adjustments to the current map to reflect how the state’s population has shifted over the past 10 years. That method has been used by other states in the redistricting process, such as Wisconsin, the opinion states.
Olivia Zink of Open Democracy Action said the “least change” approach is considered best practice. “I applaud the court’s opinion,” she said. And House Democrats also praised the court ruling.
Henry Klementowicz, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said the decision would ensure congressional districts have equal populations as required by the U.S. Constitution. But other concerns persist. “Separately from the court, we remain deeply concerned about the gerrymandered congressional map making its way through the Legislature and to Governor Sununu,” Klementowicz said in a statement.
That map, Senate Bill 200, will now head to a committee of conference, where lawmakers from both bodies can make last-minute changes to try to reach a compromise map and win over the governor, who has expressed dissatisfaction with the so-called “I-93 map.” Unlike the court’s “least change” approach, the Republican-backed map authored by Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican, would move nearly half the state into a different district. It would create a Republican-leaning 1st District and a 2nd District favorable to Democrats.
The filing period for congressional candidates is also approaching, running from June 1-10, unless the secretary of state extends the deadline.
Republican leadership from the House and Senate issued a joint statement promising that the committee of conference process on SB 200 would be transparent and inclusive. They said details about the meeting schedule would be posted on the General Court of New Hampshire website and that a livestream will be available on YouTube.