Early this year, before the coronavirus pandemic ground much legislative activity to a halt, we expressed worry in this space that all signs pointed to the Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu reenacting last year’s standoff, when many major pieces of legislation passed by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate met the record-setting veto buzz saw wielded by the governor. Many of those initiatives had been reintroduced in the current legislative session. Democratic legislators and the governor, of course, both claimed they were interested in seeking compromise, but the worry was neither side would budge meaningfully.
Now in the waning days of the session, that worry remains with respect to many of the Legislature’s priorities opposed by Sununu. But on one important matter — reforming the way lines for electoral districts are drawn — the House and Senate have indeed moved to meet the governor’s objections, and the governor should respond in kind.
The legislation, House Bill 1665, whose sponsors include Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland, is a bipartisan bill now heading to the governor’s desk that would establish an independent redistricting commission every 10 years, following the national census, for county commission, House, Senate, Executive Council and congressional districts. To limit partisan influence on its work, the 15-member commission would be drawn in equal numbers from each of the two major parties and a pool of unaffiliated voters. The process mandated by the bill is heavy on transparency. The commission’s meetings would be subject to the state’s Right-to-Know law, public input would be sought at public meetings required to be held in each county and attempts to influence the commission members outside public meetings must be publicly disclosed.
If this sounds familiar so far, it should. Many of HB 1665’s provisions are identical to those of HB 706, the independent redistricting commission bill vetoed last August by Sununu. In his veto message, the principal objection to HB 706 Sununu cited was that the state constitution requires legislators to establish districts and they “should not abrogate their responsibility to the voters and delegate authority to an unelected and unaccountable commission.”
Though HB 706’s bipartisan supporters no doubt disagreed with the governor, the constitutional point is at least arguable, and the redistricting commission backers significantly amended this year’s bill to address his concerns. The result: The commission HB 1665 would establish is only advisory in nature, charged simply with submitting final “advisory plans” to the Legislature for it to consider in performing its constitutional obligations.
The justification for assuring greater transparency and nonpartisan input into the redistricting process is compelling. In the last redistricting cycle following the 2010 census, Republicans controlled the Legislature and strong-armed the process to protect GOP incumbents’ seats, with electoral maps drawn in secret. The resulting gerrymandering was obvious. Rep. Ned Gordon, R-Bristol, a co-sponsor of HB 1665, has said his district now looks like a salamander with no geographic or community continuity. And the gerrymandering certainly had a similarly reptilian impact locally, as Executive Council District 2 was redrawn in a narrow band that snakes its way across the entire state from the Vermont border to the Seacoast.
Making the case for HB 1665 even more compelling, though, is that similar mischief can be engaged in by whichever party happens to be in control when redistricting comes around every 10 years. Certainly, the temptation will be as great for Democrats in 2021 if they retain control of the Legislature as it was for Republicans the last time around. As an illustration, at the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee hearing on HB 1665 last week, co-sponsor Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, testified that a Democratic colleague had expressed relief to her the governor had vetoed the redistricting commission bill last year because the colleague believed Democrats would hold their majorities this fall and then be able to draw districts more favorable to them.
HB 1665 is certainly less than an ideal solution for keeping all partisanship out of the legislative redistricting process and forestalling undemocratic gerrymandering. Because the commission it establishes would be only advisory in nature, the Legislature would have no legal obligation to adopt any of the electoral maps it submits. However, the commission’s process — conducted independently with balanced numbers, relying on public input throughout the state, and operated wholly in the open — will generate redistricting plans with credibility. Even if the Legislature should ultimately draw different lines, it will at least have to explain why it’s rejecting the independent commission’s recommendations — and to justify its own redistricting maps.
HB 1665, which has prominent co-sponsors and support from both parties in the House and Senate, clearly more than meets the governor’s objections from last year. He should claim victory and sign it.