New Hampshire Redistricting Debate Raises Gerrymandering Charges

Charges of constitutional compliance and gerrymandering are being flung in New Hampshire as Democrats and Republicans remain at odds about how best to redistrict the state's 400-member House of Representatives.

Democrats are claiming the GOP is trying to gerrymander the House to preserve the newly-won majority, while Republicans are saying they have a plan that meets multiple constitutional mandates. The state's constitution contains a 2006 amendment regarding the distribution of seats, which has to be weighed at the same time as the U.S. Constitution's "one man, one vote" provisions.

With the state constitution mandating that the House contain 400 seats and the 2006 amendment allowing for towns and city wards of 3,300 residents to have a single-member district for their community, the House redistricting committee is debating how to increase the amount of single-member districts, while also having some multi-member districts and covering communities that have less than 3,300 residents, along with those that have populations that include representation for 3,300, but have more residents that do not equal another 3,300. One of the proposed provisions would allow for multiple single-member districts in communities for every 3,300 people.

House Democrats are pushing a plan they said would allow for both the state and federal constitutions' requirements to be met, while at the same time creating new floatutorial districts in the state. Under this plan, the remaining population in adjoining communities that are not in existing 3,300 member districts would be placed in a new 3,300 person district. To meet state requirements for town representation, weighted voting would be used in the floatutorial districts, which Democrats also said would meet the federal voting rights requirements.

"The plan is put forward to comply with both constitutions," state Rep. David Pierce (D-Etna) said. "It is more likely than not that it will."

Pierce, the ranking Democrat on the redistricting committee, said he believes the new plan will meet federal standards because it gives each resident in the floatutorial districts one vote, and it is the total town votes that will be weighted together. He said it would also balance the votes of residents of the state's small towns and larger cities.

Republicans are not backing the Democratic plan, which they are saying is only a "concept" at this point.

"They've produced a concept, they have not produced a plan," said state Rep. Paul Mirski (R-Enfield Center), the redistricting committee chairman.

Mirski said he is concerned about making New Hampshire the first state to try weighted voting. "We have that hurdle to overcome as well," he said. "We'd have the problem of being the first out of the box." He also noted the plan could create chaos by mimicking the 2000 presidential election where Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote.

"It's an intriguing idea," Mirski said. "They problem is when you think of Bush vs. Gore -- a person winning the popular vote and then failing to become president. They are suggesting a system that would create a number of those opportunities."

The Republican plan calls for the creation of a number of single-member districts, and continuing the multi-member districts when needed to cover the population. Mirski said this meets the federal standard, along with what is required at the state level.

Pierce said Democrats believe the GOP is pushing the multi-member districts under the belief that putting together larger districts would allow for Republican-favored districts. The Republicans captured control of the state House in the 2010 election.

Mirski said his party is not trying to draw districts that favor continued Republican rule of the House. He said it is all a case of the law.

"They are talking through their hats. If they had any idea of how difficult it is to meet all the criteria," Mirski said. "Gerrymandering is all but impossible."

The debate over constitutional standards and gerrymandering comes after the redistricting committee got into a protracted debate over access to redistricting software. Democrats had charged at a committee meeting last month that Republicans were only letting the committee counsel and Republican members use the software.

Pierce said Democrats now have access to the software.

"It took some pushing when it shouldn't have," he said.