New meaning for NH redistricting in 2010

Kevin Landrigan
October 18, 2009

CONCORD - All midterm elections are a good bellwether of the mood of the body politic, but 2010 has greater importance, because the results will change where candidates all across New Hampshire have to run in the future.

Every 10 years after the Census, the New Hampshire Legislature has to realign all election districts in the state, including the 400-member House of Representatives, the 24-person Senate, the two congressional seats in the U.S. House and the five who get elected from independent parts of the state to the Executive Council.

What makes this redistricting unique is it will be the first time the lines for all 400 House districts get redrawn following an obscure but significant change in the state Constitution.

The amendment voters approved guarantees all towns big enough to have their own 
legislator will get at least one. According to the current population estimate for the state, that benchmark total per legislator equals 3,288.

In Greater Nashua, this is good news for towns such as New Ipswich - 5,211 according to the 2008 population estimate - and Wilton - 4,031 - which don't have their own lawmaker but are big enough that they'll get to elect one.

Mega-districts will also get busted up, so candidates from Litchfield and Pelham will elect their own.

Currently, candidates from those smaller towns have to scramble and run in a much larger district with Hudson, which elects 13.

Leaders of both political parties will be working extra hard to obtain the majority vote needed in either the state House of Representatives or the state Senate to be in 
charge of redrawing those maps to account for shifts in population.

Republican State Chairman John H. Sununu surely doesn't want to be heading the party for the first time since the Civil War that Democrats will be in the majority rewriting these maps.

“Having the majority after an election for redistricting can make all the difference,'' Sununu said.

Democratic Chairman Raymond Buckley was on the panel that tried to create the maps 10 years ago.

“The process is important, but the fact is, except in towns where residents have felt really disenfranchised, no one is going to run for legislative office because of redistricting,'' Buckley said.

“As a practical matter, the majority gets elected on the issues most important to voters, and this clearly isn't one of them.''

It also makes the race for governor all the more 
critical as a popular John Lynch, a Hopkinton Democrat, is likely to try to make 
history and become the first four-term chief executive in state history.

“The governor can and usually does play an important role, as we've seen in the past,'' Secretary of State Bill Gardner said.

The last redistricting fight was one of the most chaotic in recent memory, as then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, refused to sign bills for House and Senate districts.

The Supreme Court ended up hiring a South Carolina demographer to create them. The huge House districts created were so unpopular that the GOP-led Legislature changed them two years later when it had one of its own in the corner office, Craig Benson.

The legal fights caused chaos for Gardner.

“The lawsuits and delays in getting decisions forced us to have three filing periods for candidates in 2002 - one in June, one in July and one in August,'' Gardner said.

Predictably, party leaders blame the other side for the resulting stalemate.

“This amounted to one of my greatest disappointments in my legislative career,'' said Buckley, who served in the House for 18 years.

“We ran into a political buzz-saw from the first day we met.''

Sununu, a former governor, faulted Shaheen, now the state's junior U.S. senator.

“She deliberately caused the election system to get run into judicially driven chaos,'' Sununu said.

Recent history has demonstrated that changes in the election maps can help make the majority party grow that much stronger.

In 2002, the GOP went from having only a two-person edge in the 24-member Senate (13-11) to a 12-person margin (18-6), and it picked up 25 more seats in the House.

Thanks to an unpopular war in Iraq and Lynch's coattails, the Democrats seized power in both legislative branches in 2006.

To change the balance of power in the Statehouse, the Republicans would need to pick up 25 seats in the House and three more seats in the 
 Senate.

“That's our goal, and it is achievable,'' Sununu said.

Buckley said that while the process can be partisan, the reaction of public officials to the changes are more often personal.

“No elected official wants to lose any of the voters that got them there, and that's how I felt when I was in the House,'' Buckley said. “It's a feeling that transcends party politics.''

Gardner said the constitutional change would make the process of redistricting the House more straightforward and less prone to trying to manipulate the districts to partisan advantage.

“The amendment has really reduced the role the House will play in all of this,'' Gardner said. “It also should mean more towns are represented.''

While many celebrate the large Legislature as the idyllic symbol of citizen democracy, only about half (118) of the state's 234 towns and cities have their own legislator.

The only one of the state's 10 counties where all towns are represented in the House is Strafford County on the Seacoast.

This will further ensure that larger towns get the number of lawmakers to which their population entitles them.

For example, Milford is 
large enough to have four House members, but now has only three, who were elected last November in an eight-member district that includes Amherst.

“This will change things quite a bit,'' Gardner said.

For broader trends, the size of county delegations in the House aren't likely to change much because the growth spurt in the state from 2000-08 was pretty uniform.

There should be some legislative swaps from urban to suburban regions. By the 2008 numbers, at least, Manchester's 35-person bloc should be smaller by two seats and the Nashua's 28-member delegation should lose one, as well.

Hampton Democratic Rep. Robert Cushing is authoring a 2010 bill to create 400 individual House districts, each of the same size.

Buckley said while that might be the philosophical ideal, it could be difficult for both parties to recruit candidates from smaller regions all over the state.

“This would make a hard job even harder, I fear,'' Buckley said.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.


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