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Upper Valley hearings set as NH lawmakers prepare for redistricting

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2021 9:47:51 PM
Modified: 9/25/2021 9:47:51 PM

NORTH HAVERHILL — Lawmakers drawing legislative maps that will determine New Hampshire’s political landscape for the next decade will convene in Grafton County next week to hear what residents have to say about their representation in Concord.

The House Special Committee on Redistricting and its Senate counterpart will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill for a public hearing on the redistricting process.

A forum for Sullivan County is scheduled for mid-October in Claremont.

Both meetings are part of a statewide tour where lawmakers hope to hear what is and isn’t working about New Hampshire’s legislative maps.

So far, they’ve heard from towns that want better representation in the 400-member House, Granite Staters who want more opportunities to comment on redrawn districts and advocates worried about the prospect of political gerrymandering.

In July, the Canaan Selectboard asked the House committee for its own representative.

Canaan sits in two House districts, one floterial that stretches into the White Mountains and another that includes Dorchester and Wentworth. But, board members said in a letter, the town has a large enough population (3,794 residents) to warrant a representative, given that an “ideal” district amounts to about 3,447 people.

“Towns such as Canaan, with adequate population to require one or more state representatives, deserve the ability to send a local representative to Concord who is familiar with and can advocate for local concerns regarding taxation, education, infrastructure and more,” the Selectboard wrote. “Currently, Canaan is robbed of that right.”

Residents from New London, which shares two House seats with Newbury, N.H., also asked lawmakers for its own seat during a hearing earlier this month. Recent census figures put the town’s population at 4,400.

“I urge the committee to redistrict New London and other eligible towns so that they are assigned the representation they are legally due,” said New London resident Nancy Maracio, who estimated about 62 municipalities in New Hampshire are eligible for their own House seat.

Regardless of whether they want it or not, Lebanon officials also expect a change in the city’s districts this year. Lebanon, which has four seats in the House that are elected at large, was spared its House districts being broken up by ward in 2011.

State Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, said she thinks the redistricting committee will make it so that each of Lebanon’s three wards gets a representative, with a floterial district covering the whole city making up the fourth slot. Such a system took hold in Claremont a decade ago.

“If you’ve got wards, you’re supposed to be broken up into them,” said Almy, citing a 2006 constitutional amendment that encourages smaller districts.

Almy added that she’s interested to see how the Senate redraws its map, saying it’s one of the “most gerrymandered bodies in the country,” along with the Executive Council. Both bodies currently lean heavily toward Republicans.

Some advocates are concerned that the redistricting process could see a repeat of 2011, when Republicans in control of the Statehouse forced through maps that Democrats argue put them at a deep disadvantage.

However, state Rep. Steven Smith, the redistricting committee’s vice chairman, doesn’t see a whole lot of change on the horizon.

State laws and court precedent that dictate the number of voters in each House district, geographical boundaries and “simple math” limit the changes available to lawmakers this year, he said last week.

“It’s a giant algebraic exercise,” said Smith, R-Charlestown.

There’s plenty about New Hampshire’s current House map that irks Smith, a deputy House speaker.

Floterial districts hover over large swaths of the state with few cultural connections, some communities that share a school district or fire department don’t also share a House member and many towns have to share a representative with another town.

But, Smith said, census figures could hamper attempts to fix those issues.

The state Supreme Court in a 2002 ruling said a deviation rate — or the difference between populations in electoral districts — of 9% achieves “substantial equality,” meaning lawmakers must keep new districts within that range, Smith said.

He added that House districts can’t cross county boundaries, so towns like Tilton and Northfield, which share a fire department and school district but are divided by the Belknap-Merrimack county line, can’t have the same state representatives. Lawmakers also have to contend with a 2006 state constitutional amendment that attempted to break up big at-large districts and encourage single-ward or town ones.

Together, those constraints mean it’s nearly impossible for lawmakers to draw a map that pleases everyone, according to Paul Mirski, a former state representative from Enfield who led the state’s last redistricting effort.

“Nobody’s ever going to be satisfied with redistricting. That’s for sure,” he said.

Mirski estimated that about 90% of redistricting comes down to math while the other 10% is subjective. And no matter who is in charge, he said, redrawing maps is a political process.

“Whatever the majority party will do, it will do,” he said, comparing Republican advantages in New Hampshire to Democratic ones in Massachusetts and other blue states.

Still, Democrats are calling for the redistricting process to be more inclusive, and have previously argued that the county hearings should be open for those who may want to participate virtually.

Last week, they also said another round of meetings should be scheduled once new maps are released.

“I think the frustration for the public is that there are hearings now but they don’t plan on more once they have a plan,” said state Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover.

Nordgren, who has served at the Statehouse since 1988, called the current hearings “perfunctory.”

“They’re doing this to try to seem like they’re taking input or information,” she said.

The Grafton County redistricting hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Grafton Superior Court, 3785 Dartmouth College Highway, North Haverhill.

The Sullivan County forum will take place 6 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Claremont Savings Bank Community Center, 52 South St., Claremont.

Meetings also have been livestreamed on the New Hampshire House YouTube page.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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