It was no surprise when, at its fieldhouse session in Bedford Wednesday, the House killed the remaining bill to establish an independent redistricting commission to redraw electoral district lines for state, county and congressional offices following the 2020 census. Earlier this month, the Senate killed its bill to establish an independent commission — albeit one that would have been only advisory. Both proposals, which were passed in the prior biennium by the Democratic-led Legislature, but with bipartisan support, had been vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu. With his party now controlling both houses and, thus, the upcoming redistricting, there clearly was no appetite for turning to a fairer, more open process that has been gaining bipartisan traction in other states.
Now it’s up to the Republicans controlling the process and Gov. Sununu to assure that redistricting is more transparent, fair and public, unlike the last go-round in 2011. Then, the electoral maps were drawn by a small group of legislators out of the public eye and were publicly available just 24 hours before the only public hearing on them and one week before the House voted. Gerrymandered districts to favor the then-Republican majority — though the same might well have been expected under Democratic control — were the unsurprising result. One example close to home is Executive Council District 2, which now snakes from Hinsdale through Keene to Concord and Portsmouth solely to pack as many towns tending to vote Democratic into one district, to favor Republicans in the other districts.
Although an independent commission — even if only advisory — would be the best step to restore confidence in the electoral map-drawing exercise, there remains a way to let Concord know how important fairness and transparency in the upcoming process are. Over a hundred communities — including several in this region — will consider warrant articles this town-meeting season to approve nonbinding resolutions urging that redistricting be conducted openly and fairly in public meetings, without favoring any political party or candidate and to minimize multi-seat districts, in particular so that any town of at least 3,300 residents be given its own state representative rather than having split representation with other towns. A similar resolution has been proposed for Keene, and on Wednesday the Planning, Licenses and Development Committee unanimously recommended the City Council support the effort, which it should.
There is also a bill still pending in the Senate that, if enacted, would add a welcome measure of confidence in the upcoming process. Senate Bill 90, whose co-sponsors include Keene’s Sen. Jay Kahn, would require an equal amount of state funds used in redistricting be available to each party in each chamber, electoral maps under consideration be made publicly available on a website and legislative meetings to consider redistricting be public with opportunity for public testimony. A remote hearing before the Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee will be held Monday at 9:30 a.m. The bill’s provisions are common sense and deserve favorable consideration in the Legislature and from Gov. Sununu.
Whether they’ll get it remains to be seen. The governor, in vetoing the past sessions’ independent commission bills, emphasized his confidence that the Legislature will go about its redistricting fairly. That will be tested, given that state Republican Party Chair Stephen Stepanek is on record stating his “guarantee” that one of the state’s congressional districts will flip now that Republicans control redistricting.
But, even if that callous attitude doesn’t infect the upcoming process, legislators and the governor should bear in mind that, with public trust in our representatives and confidence in the electoral process in decline, perception is as important as reality. Simple steps such as heeding the voices of towns and cities that urge openness in redistricting and adopting the provisions of SB 90 to assure public input in the process will go a long way to minimizing concern it will be hijacked by brazen partisanship.