The New Hampshire Legislature’s traveling redistricting roadshow came to town last week. It afterward finished its way around the state and is now settling down in Concord to draw maps that will establish the voting districts for state, county and congressional offices for the rest of the decade. Every New Hampshire resident has a stake in the process being conducted as fairly and openly as possible, though recent experience gives little reason for confidence that partisan mischief won’t infect the results.

Billed as community input sessions, the meetings have been jointly conducted by the Senate and House special committees on redistricting to hear from residents about issues and concerns the committees should factor in when redrawing political boundaries to reflect changes in the recently released 2020 census data. Unfortunately, the redistricting process remains a purely legislative one, and the temptation to use the process to gain political advantage is high for whichever party controls the Legislature. This cycle, that’s the Republicans, but there’s no reason the Democrats would be any less tempted in a future cycle.

The situation was similar a decade ago, when electoral maps were drawn in secret and then made public just a day before the sole public hearing on them and only a week before coming up for a vote. To nobody’s surprise, the result was gerrymandered districts to favor the then-Republican legislative majority.

There’ve been efforts in the years since to limit partisan influence on the redistricting process. The Legislature passed bipartisan bills in 2019 and 2020 to establish an independent redistricting commission. Gov. Chris Sununu, however, vetoed the first, saying it unconstitutionally tied the Legislature’s hands. The Legislature then revised the second bill to make the commission advisory only, but Sununu vetoed that one too, saying he had faith the Legislature could go about its redistricting fairly, despite evidence of past redistricting to the contrary.

Recently, Sununu has said he wants electoral maps drawn that “pass the smell test.” Nevertheless, faith in the current redistricting cycle was shaken when state Republican Party Chair Stephen Stepanek stated his party’s control of redistricting meant he could “guarantee” a flip in one of the state’s now Democratic-held Congressional seats. Sununu, who lately seems as much at odds with his own party as with Democrats, told N.H. Public Radio redistricting to regain a seat is “really stupid.”

If the input session in Keene last week is evidence, the two redistricting committees are learning of some very practical considerations that should be taken into account to achieve fairness in establishing of electoral districts. Rindge resident Jeff Dickler noted that his very rural town shares the same Senate and Executive Council district as very urban Nashua and asked, “Now what in the heck do we have in common with Nashua?”

Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, told the committees that Keene and 14 towns in Cheshire County are in a single Senate district — his — but the eight other towns are peeled off into three other districts. He urged greater commonality in representation for the region, not only geographically, but also by considering the shared school districts, and suggested dividing the county into two Senate districts. Further, if commonality of interest is a goal — which it should be — the committee should redraw Executive Council District 2, as Kahn also urged, so that municipalities in a narrow swath stretching across the state from Hinsdale through Keene and Concord to Portsmouth are no longer in a shared district.

Rep. Steven Smith, a Charlestown Republican who is the House committee’s vice chair, said the committee welcomes the specific concerns being raised at the input sessions as it weighs its options. Whether those concerns will be fairly reflected in the redrawn electoral maps remains to be seen. And the maps must also be made public sufficiently in advance of being adopted to allow for meaningful public reaction and further revision.

Both the Senate and House redistricting committees have relatively balanced representation from the two major parties, with Republicans holding a single committee member advantage in each. If the redrawn maps that emerge from the process fail to attract meaningful bipartisan support, Sununu may have a chance to prove he indeed has a “smell test.” It will also be clear once again that leaving redistricting solely in the Legislature’s hands can lead only to partisanship at the expense of fairness.

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