A good idea for New Hampshire that had partisan support last year died a partisan death Thursday. By a 14-10 party-line vote, the Senate killed again a proposal to establish an independent commission to provide non-binding advice to the Legislature when it redraws lines for county commission, House, Senate, Executive Council and congressional districts.
Under the state and federal constitutions, redistricting is mandated in the first year of every decade, following the national census. As a result of Thursday’s action, this year’s redistricting will remain as vulnerable to partisan mischief as it was 10 years ago when a Republican-led Legislature drew electoral maps in secret to protect GOP incumbents, or in future decades regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats control the process.
Concern over the partisan temptations and manipulations that result when the drawing of electoral maps is left to the whims of whichever political party happens to control a state legislature in a year ending with the number “1” has been growing across the country. And it has led other states, both red and blue, to turn to independent commissions to oversee the process. The idea gained greater traction when the Supreme Court ruled Arizona’s commission to be constitutional in 2015.
In New Hampshire, redistricting commission proposals were passed by the Legislature with bipartisan support in 2019 and 2020. Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the first, arguing in his veto message that, because the commission’s redistricting decisions would be binding on the Legislature, it would violate the state constitution’s requirement that legislators establish districts. Taking him at his word, the Legislature last year revised the proposal — again, with bipartisan support — to make the commission’s work advisory and non-binding on the Legislature. Though the bill met his objections to the prior one, Sununu nevertheless vetoed it again, and mustered enough Republican votes in the Legislature to sustain his veto.
With Sununu still in the corner office, and Republicans now in control of the Legislature, Thursday’s Senate vote was no surprise. What is surprising, though, is the disappearance of any bipartisan support. For example, one of the sponsors of last year’s advisory commission bill was now-Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, yet Thursday he voted to kill this year’s identical bill. The only difference is the change in the Legislature’s controlling party, and it’s hard not to conclude that the bill seemed to him a good idea when Democrats might control redistricting but has become a bad one now that Republicans will.
In one of his prior veto messages, the governor complained of a partisan organization from outside New Hampshire pushing for a commission to favor Democrats in the redistricting process, and he has steadfastly maintained that the current procedure is fair. Yet last month State Republican Party Chair Stephen Stepanek told WMUR that, because Republicans now control redistricting, he could “guarantee” one of the state’s congressional districts would flip to a Republican. This is exactly the type of brazen partisanship that a redistricting commission would limit and why there’s evidence the idea has majority support among Granite Staters.
It’s clear the deck is stacked against adopting a less partisan process for the current redistricting cycle. Fine. It will now be up to the governor and the Legislature to assure a fair and transparent redistricting, and court challenges will surely await them should they fail to do so.
And they should also recognize that political pendulums inevitably swing, and it’s not too early to support a redistricting commission for the next cycle, in 2031. There’s a bill still pending in the House that could and should be amended for that purpose. After all, who knows which party will control the Legislature then?