In a democratic republic like the United States, voters are meant to choose their politicians, not the other way around.
Like many of our fellow Granite Staters, we take free and fair elections personally. One of us served for years as a Republican leader in the N.H. House of Representatives and later as an assistant secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush. The other was a Democratic nominee for Executive Council (raised in a long line of Republican elected officials) and led the nonpartisan group Open Democracy. Although we do not agree on every issue, we are united by our commitment to representative government and we believe the vast majority of Granite Staters agree.
Against this backdrop, we were pained to hear former state Rep. Steve Stepanek, the chair of New Hampshire’s Republican Party and a staunch defender of Donald Trump following the Capitol insurrection, make a stunning claim at a meeting of state GOP leaders: “I can stand here today and guarantee you that we will send a conservative Republican to Washington, D.C., as a congressperson in 2022.”
How, you might wonder, can the leader of a political party “guarantee” the defeat of an incumbent congressman and the election of one of his own nearly two years before a single ballot has been cast? Stepanek’s answer was short and to the point: “Republicans are controlling redistricting.”
Unlike many other states that vest authority to draw district lines in independent, nonpartisan redistricting commissions, New Hampshire tradition places that power in the hands of the Legislature itself following each U.S. Census. In 2011, a small group of Republican politicians gathered in secret to draw the current electoral maps for maximum political gain. The completed maps were released just 24 hours before their only public hearing and one week before the Republican-controlled House voted them into law, against the strong objections of Democrats and nonpartisan observers.
Not surprisingly, the gerrymandered districts favored the majority. In every election since 2012, Republicans won more seats in Concord than their share of ballots cast. Although both of us have strong ties to the Republican Party, we feel compelled to call a spade a spade: Republicans did not win fair and square. The same is true for Democrats in certain other states
For a perfect case in point, take Executive Council District 2, which snakes across the state from Vermont to Maine in order to pack as many Democratic votes as possible into a single district, while tilting the other four districts toward the Republicans. In 2020, Republicans received 51 percent of statewide Executive Council votes but ended up controlling 80 percent of seats on the governor’s council, according to The Associated Press. Meanwhile, Democratic control of the state Senate was lost in two gerrymandered districts by a combined 610 votes, giving the Republicans a 14-10 majority (58 percent) with a statewide Senate vote of 50 percent.
Now, GOP leaders are poised to deepen their partisan advantage once the 2020 Census results are released later this year by redrawing district lines to “guarantee” a congressional seat and tilt legislative and Executive Council districts still further in their favor. Gov. Chris Sununu has cleared the path by twice vetoing legislation to establish an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission after it passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support.
Although we long for a legislative solution to the problem of partisan gerrymandering, the current majority in Concord leaves no choice but to focus on local and federal action in the interest of fair elections. At the local level, we strongly support the more than 100 New Hampshire towns that have voted, or will, on non-binding resolutions this town meeting season that urge redistricting be conducted openly and fairly in public meetings. The warrant articles demand that neither political party be favored in the process and that any town of at least 3,300 residents be given its own state representative to avoid gerrymandered multi-member districts. We hope the state GOP will take these demands to heart.
At the federal level, Congress can and must end the practice of partisan gerrymandering in the future by sending HR 1, the For the People Act, to President Joe Biden’s desk. The legislation would enact a range of good-government reforms including requiring states to establish a bipartisan independent commission to redraw congressional district maps after future Censuses. HR 1 passed the House of Representatives for the second time last week and is now headed to the Senate, where citizen support could make all the difference. It is a successor to the Fair Elections Now Act, on which we worked with New Hampshire’s late Republican Sen. Warren Rudman as directors of Americans for Campaign Reform (now Issue One).
As the legendary New Hampshire reformer Doris “Granny D” Haddock used to say, “Democracy is not something we have — it’s something we do.” Now is the time for Granite Staters across the political aisle to act in unison at the local and federal level to end the unseemly practice of partisan gerrymandering and guarantee fair elections for all.