I’VE HAD A strange career. Crisscrossing between journalism and politics for the past 25 years has left an eclectic group of stickers on my proverbial steamer trunk. I’ve had to become an expert on education funding, ethanol subsidies, and offshore fish farming. (Don’t get me started on the failure to streamline permitting for open ocean aquaculture in federal waters!)
One of the first issues I dove into as a New Hampshire House staffer was legislative redistricting. Nearly two decades, and two rounds of redistricting later, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears oral arguments in a redistricting case today.
At issue in Gill v. Whitford is the extent to which lawmakers shaping district boundaries can use partisan politics to draw the lines.
Partisanship has been part of the redistricting process from the start. It was “old hat”, as George Will put it, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced Gary) drew up the Essex South state senate district famously likened to a salamander in an 1812 political cartoon. Over the past two decades, politicians have used computerized mapping programs to fine-tune their gerrymandering skills.
While she was on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the swing vote on redistricting issues, so she essentially controlled what was allowed. She wrote convoluted multipart balancing tests, and pushed states to draw “minority-majority” districts, which usually elected black and Hispanic Democrats. Democrats fought for more of these districts, while Republicans argued that using race to draw district lines was racist.
Drawing lines to capture enough minority voters to make up the bulk of a district also left fewer minorities in the remaining districts. Around the turn of the century, both parties woke up to the fact that this practice greatly benefitted Republicans. They switched sides.
Liberals want the Supreme Court to overturn a Wisconsin map that favors Republicans, in part because of “majority-minority” districts. The lead plaintiff is suing because the Democrats he supports win his district too easily. The case stands in for similar challenges to Republican-drawn maps in several states.
The Granite State is a little different. The New Hampshire Constitution requires district lines to conform to town boundaries, and to wards drawn by local officials. That denies map makers the ability to sculpt districts block by block, or house by house. Besides, we only have two Congressional districts. The First District leans Republican, and the Second District Democratic, neither overwhelmingly.
The Legislature could switch a few towns and make both reasonably safe seats, but there’s no incentive to do that when one party holds both seats. Shoring up one incumbent would make it a lot harder for the other one.
Respecting town boundaries makes it hard to make much mischief in drawing the 400 state House districts. Math decides how many seats go to Merrimack, Londonderry, and Milford. There’s some discretion in assigning the “floterial” districts shared by towns not big enough to have their own seats, or by towns with too many people for a round number of representatives.
Map makers have the most latitude in designing state Senate and Executive Council districts. The current Council map created a Democratic dreamland stretching from Keene to Durham. Andru Volinsky holds perhaps the safest seat in New Hampshire. The other four districts lean Republican, though Democrat Chris Pappas continues to prove that candidates and campaigns can trump the map.
The state Senate map favors Republicans. It would be hard to draw one favoring Democrats, because Democratic voters have packed themselves into tight districts. Unless you break up Concord, Keene, and Portsmouth across multiple districts, you’re going to end up with a few seats that are almost impossible for Democrats to lose, and many that favor the GOP.
Redistricting has always been a partisan exercise. Democrats held the U.S. House of Representatives for 40 years in part because Democrats controlled state legislatures. Yet it is no more improper or distasteful than the rest of the legislative sausage factory. Redistricting is an inherently political process. Shifting responsibility to the courts or to appointed commissions would merely move it farther from the voters.
Grant Bosse is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News.