Thank you for your interest in and support of the Valley News. So far, we have raised 80% of the funds required to host journalists Claire Potter and Alex Driehaus for their one-year placements in the Upper Valley through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Column: ‘Gerry-mander’ comes to New Hampshire

  • Dan Billin illustration Dan Billin illustration

To the Valley News
Published: 11/22/2021 10:10:27 PM
Modified: 11/22/2021 10:10:12 PM

Republican members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives set themselves a daunting task when they sat down to redraw the state’s two congressional districts: How to construct one that would elect a Republican.

Rigging the 1st District was clearly more feasible, given the greater strength of Democrats in the 2nd District. The Republicans already have a razor-thin advantage over Democrats in registered voters in the 1st District, but with many voters registered undeclared, the Republican candidate polled only 46% in the last U.S. House election.

Creating an effective Republican majority there presented serious challenges. Manchester is the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold of the 1st District, delivering almost a quarter of the party’s votes in the last congressional race. Since it’s the hometown of the incumbent, cutting it out of the district was probably too direct an approach to removing him from office.

Whatever the reason, the GOP strategists left Manchester untouched. That made the goal of getting Democratic voters out of the 1st District a problem of geography, because almost all of the rest of the Democratic votes in the district are tucked into the southeast corner of the state — as far away from the northwesterly 2nd District as you can get. To connect those distant towns and cities to the 2nd District, GOP legislators appear to have looked back more than two centuries for inspiration to a redistricting plan that still lives in infamy.

Time now for a little history, and the story of how a word for a corrupt political practice entered our lexicon.

In 1811, the Democratic-Republican party in Massachusetts had control of both houses of the state Legislature and the governor’s office. Knowing their Federalist opponents didn’t have the votes to stop them, they drastically redrew the state Senate districts to assure victories by their candidates. This was achieved in part by creating a district in Essex County that linked a chain of towns wrapping around the rest of the county. For most of its winding length, this new district was only one town wide.

The sheer chutzpah of the plan created a sensation — but not a good one. It squeaked out of the Senate by just one vote, and then passed the House 278-231. Subsequently, 224 House members signed a protest, but Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced “gary”) went ahead and signed his party’s redistricting plan into law in 1812.

Different historical accounts credit different players for coming up with what happened next, but this much is undisputed: Heated talk about the misbegotten Essex County district led to a political cartoon in the Boston Gazette that portrayed the district as a winged monster dubbed the “Gerry-mander.” According to more than one account, the sarcastic reference to the governor was a witty rejoinder to someone’s remark that the district map resembled a salamander.

The cartoon and the name were reproduced in pamphlets and broadsides that featured bitingly satirical natural-science discussions of the strange new beast that had been sighted in Essex County. The widespread mockery was embarrassing for the Democratic-Republicans, but their district-packing strategy was highly effective. In the next election, they won 29 of 40 Senate races with just 49% of the popular Senate vote. You can’t gerrymander an entire state, however, so Gerry lost his own race to the Federalist candidate.

The Senate coup turned out to be a short-lived victory: The Federalists took control of the Legislature in the next election and overturned the Democratic-Republican districting law.

But the name “gerrymander” had staying power, becoming universally adopted to denominate the partisan manipulation of electoral districts to produce outcomes that can’t be obtained simply by appealing to voters. As time went by and Gerry faded from memory, the word that memorialized him came to be pronounced with a soft “g.”

Which brings us back to the present day, in which Republican legislators have cobbled together their own gerrymander to get those pesky southeastern towns out of the 1st District. Their new congressional map snares those Democratic strongholds by sending a long, narrow arm out of the northeast corner of the 2nd District, reaching 85 miles down the edge of the state from the White Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Like the 1812 districting law, this boardinghouse reach is just one town wide in several places. And like the 1812 law, the GOP plan stretches out one district to almost entirely encircle another.

The GOP plan is similarly effective, too — removing eight of the top 15 Democratic-voting towns from the 1st District. I ran the numbers from the last congressional races: By kicking out dozens of towns where the Democrat won and replacing them with 2nd District towns won by the Republican, the GOP plan produces a new district that voted 50% Republican, 48% Democrat and 2% Libertarian. Voila! The promise of a manufactured Republican seat for at least the next decade — and even longer if the Democrats are out of power in the next redistricting season.

By my analysis of the secretary of state’s voter registration data, the GOP plan would reduce the number of registered Democrats in the 1st District by almost 12%, and increase the number of registered Republicans by almost 6%. That’s 20,086 fewer Democrats and 10,121 more Republicans.

Getting to that result required drastic means: moving 55 cities and towns — a total of 75 election precincts, counting individual city wards — from one congressional district to another. That stands in stark contrast to the redistricting plan of the Democratic minority, which found a way to balance the populations of the two existing districts by moving just one town (Hampstead, population 8,998). One town!

Efficiency and consistency aren’t the aim of the GOP plan, however. The aim is doing whatever it takes to piece together a district that will elect Republicans instead of Democrats.

That’s blatantly corrupt. Like the Democratic-Republicans in Massachusetts, New Hampshire’s Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, so it’s a good bet this plan will be signed into law, too.

When New Hampshire’s Democrats controlled the Legislature in 2019 and 2020, they passed bills to create an independent redistricting commission. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed both bills. “New Hampshire has a redistricting process that is fair, representative and accountable to voters,” he said after his second veto. “New Hampshire takes the process seriously and we should take pride that issues of gerrymandering in the state are rare.”

What I’m feeling about this gerrymander is not Granite State pride. And I certainly don’t think the Republican majority should be proud to have betrayed free elections and fair representation in this desperate bid for power.

Much more bracing is this maxim from Devon Chaffee, executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire: “The people of New Hampshire should choose their elected officials, not the other way around.”

Dan Billin lives in Lebanon and is a former Valley News staff writer.

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy