CONCORD — Nonpartisan reform advocates and civil rights leaders endorsed creating an independent commission to redraw legislative, county and congressional election districts after the 2020 elections.
But supporters learned they were dealing with a lot more pushback from Republican minority members on the House Election Laws Committee than they did when the panel embraced a similar measure, 20-0, in February 2019.
State Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, returned to the panel Tuesday with her cause aimed at removing legislative partisanship from the process of redrawing election district boundaries every 10 years.
This takes on renewed focus since this is a top task for the Legislature in 2021, to adjust all those lines to reflect population changes identified in the 2020 Census.
Last August, Gov. Chris Sununu, a two-term Newfields Republican, vetoed a similar Smith bill saying that, while well-intentioned, it would create an “unaccountable” commission that could heed the wishes of “party bosses.”
Smith said she hasn’t given up hope of winning over critics.
“I don’t know why the chairman chose today for the hearing; I would have chosen Groundhog Day,” Smith quipped.
Commission members equal by party
The commission would be made up of five Republicans, five Democrats and five others chosen by the first 10 to be named.
All plans would require at least a 60% majority, or nine votes, to be submitted to the Legislature for an up or down vote.
“When what you want to do is the right thing, you do it again and again and again until a majority of one recognizes the overwhelming support of the House and the Senate and more importantly the majority of the public,” Smith said, referring to the governor.
“We all know where the absence of unanimity comes from. I continue to be hopeful we will be able to achieve success again.”
Yurij Rudensky with the Brennan Center for Justice said he’s advised lawmakers in other states that have spent millions fighting in court over redistricting maps to look at Smith’s bill (HB 1665) as an apolitical reform that would save taxpayers legal fees.
“This promotes the values that are key to success, the right amount of independence with the Legislature still retaining the key votes. ... It fosters compromise, transparency and meaningful community involvement,” Rudensky said.
There are 21 states that have some nonpartisan process for redistricting, but there are only eight with commissions. Michigan is the most eastern state with one now.
Rep. Ned Gordon, R-Bristol, said he represents a five-town district that looks “very much like a salamander” and takes him nearly an hour to cover by car.
“I don’t know exactly why it was created this way but the long and short is this doesn’t make sense,” said Gordon, a cosponsor of the commission bill along with Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.
Leaders with the League of Women Voters, Open Democracy Action and the Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire supported the measure.
GOP says 2020 commission too powerful
But one GOP member after another on the committee argued the bill gave this unelected commission too much power.
“I thought the mantra was we aren’t taking any authority away from the Legislature whatsoever,” said Rep. Betty Gay, R-Salem.
Smith said it’s important to ensure the commission cannot be bullied by any Legislature run by either major party.
“It does not provide for the Legislature on its own to say without the commission’s involvement that, OK, we are going to ignore the work you have done and just pass our own redistricting plan,” Smith said.
Rep. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton, said this new bill is different than the one the House first passed last spring.
For example, the House last February amended its bill (HB 706) to require a House speaker or Senate president to spell out what lawmakers find unacceptable about a commission plan that gets voted down.
“If a chamber of the Legislature fails to pass the final plans for the New Hampshire House and Senate, the presiding officer of that chamber shall issue a written explanation specifying how the final plan fails the criteria,” the amended bill in 2019 said.
The Senate struck that language out of the final version in 2019.
The bill before the House committee Tuesday merely said that, after lawmakers reject any plan, the commission “shall review the legislative record” and make amendments as it sees fit.
“This isn’t the same bill and I think you are going to find it’s not going to get the same support,” Lang said after the hearing.
After Sununu’s veto last August, House Republicans voted 145-7 to back up the governor.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was in Concord Tuesday advocating for amending the federal Constitution to require a balanced budget. A hearing on a resolution to rescind New Hampshire’s 2012 vote for that convention was set for Wednesday.
“I think the governor did the right thing vetoing that bill since your state Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to not only redistrict the House and Senate but also the congressional and some county districts as well,” Walker said during an interview.
“Why would the Legislature give up that authority? It made sense for your founders since the power was being rested in one of the most representative legislative bodies in the free world.”