Editorial: The wrong direction on NH elections

  • The rising sun illuminates the Statehouse, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

Published: 2/18/2022 9:12:33 AM
Modified: 2/18/2022 9:12:23 AM

It is becoming harder and harder for American voters to participate meaningfully in elections. The policies that result in this dangerous paradox ought to be resisted by everyone who wants democracy to survive and thrive.

In recent years, Republican-controlled legislatures across the country have enacted various restrictions aimed at disenfranchising voters whom they perceive to be inclined to vote for Democrats. In 2021 alone, at least 19 states enacted a total of 34 laws erecting new barriers to voting. Here, while Vermont has made voting easier, New Hampshire Republicans have tried to do the opposite. (Some of the measures have been challenged in court, at least one successfully.) Currently, the state Senate is considering a bill that attempts to discourage same-day registration to vote by making the process far more complex and cumbersome. All in the name of preventing “voter fraud,” documented instances of which are vanishingly rare.

Another way voters are being squeezed out of the electoral equation is gerrymandering. As they are every 10 years, congressional and legislative districts are being redrawn across the country to account for population changes reported by the recent Census. An analysis by The New York Times found that both Republicans and Democrats are drawing new political maps “designed to ensure that the vast majority of House races are over before the general election starts.” It found that with two-thirds of new congressional districts drawn, the likely outcome is that only about 40 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House will be competitive, as compared with 73 just 10 years ago. Redrawing political boundaries for partisan advantage has a long history, but new technology, more data and increasingly sophisticated tools of analysis have carried gerrymandering to unprecedented levels.

This proliferation of “safe” seats is a prescription for further gridlock and voter alienation. If you are a Republican voter in a heavily Democratic district, or vice versa, you may well feel that your vote doesn’t really count and that your stake in the political process is slim. And candidates who do not have to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters have less reason to moderate their positions.

In New Hampshire, the map approved by the Republican-controlled House in January would shift congressional boundaries in an incoherent way, bolstering Democratic control of the 2nd District, which includes the Upper Valley, while tilting the 1st District heavily in favor of Republicans. “This map would virtually eliminate two-party competition for New Hampshire’s congressional seats for the next decade,” said Dante Scala, a respected observer of state politics. “It would create a Blue Hampshire seat and a Red Hampshire seat.”

Defenders of the House-approved map argued that the two districts are not competitive now and that their version would at least render competitive the 1st District seat, won by Democrat Chris Pappas in the past two elections. But not too long before that, the district swung back and forth between Democrats and Republicans in four consecutive elections. If the district is no longer competitive, then Republicans should consider what has caused the shift in voter preference rather than shifting boundaries.

To his credit, Gov. Chris Sununu has asked the state Senate to change the House map to make the congressional districts more competitive, stating the obvious: “We’re a purple state.” We shall see.

As legislative and congressional districts become noncompetitive in general elections, primaries become in many instances the only elections that matter. But again in New Hampshire, a bill introduced in the House would limit participation by undeclared voters in state primaries (although not presidential ones, according to its sponsor). The roughly 400,000 registered voters who are unaffiliated with either party can at present decide on election day in which party’s primary they want to vote. Under the proposed legislation, voters would have to declare a party affiliation at least four months in advance. This also militates against the emergence of moderate candidates in favor of more partisan ones.

Such machinations are chipping away at the very foundations of democracy, which clearly are not as solid as it long appeared.

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