Local lawmakers consider re-election amid rejiggered districts

·5 min read

May 25—A week before New Hampshire's candidate filing period starts, state representatives from Cheshire County are navigating re-election options amid a new map of legislative districts.

Every 10 years, district boundary lines are redrawn based on updated population figures from the U.S. Census. The new boundaries mean that some lawmakers, if they are re-elected, will have a new set of constituents.

For example, Reps. Amanda Elizabeth Toll and Joe Schapiro, both Democrats, represent Cheshire House District 16, which takes in the entire city of Keene.

Under House Bill 50, which passed the Republican-controlled Legislature by partisan votes and was signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu on March 23, this district will now cover Keene's Ward 2 as well as Alstead, Gilsum, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson, Roxbury, Stoddard and Sullivan.

The state constitution requires members of the N.H. House to live in the district they represent. Toll lives in Keene's Ward 5 and, so, can no longer represent this district.

If she wants to stay in the N.H. House, she would have to represent the new Cheshire 15, which covers Keene's wards 1, 3, 4 and 5 as well as Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Surry, Walpole and Westmoreland.

She said in an email she may run for this district, or she may run for the N.H. Senate seat of Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, who is not seeking re-election. If she does run to succeed Kahn, this would put her in competition with Rep. Donovan Fenton, D-Keene, who plans to run for that seat.

"Regardless, I'll continue to be a strong advocate for reproductive justice, economic justice including healthcare access, and child advocacy, to uplift everyone in our community," Toll said.

The GOP-led redistricting process did not sit well with Toll.

"Highly partisan redistricting is the real voter fraud of our day and an offense to those who care about one-person-one-vote," she wrote. "NH should have used an independent commission as many of my colleagues and I advocated for last year."

Two years ago, Sununu vetoed a bill that would have established an independent redistricting commission to ward off gerrymandering, or drawing district maps to benefit one party or another.

Meanwhile, Rep. Schapiro, who is championing a bill this year to add an adult benefit to Medicaid, lives in Keene's Ward 2, so he plans to run in District 16, but since its districts have changed, he would have nine new communities to represent in addition to his ward.

He said a foundational principle in redistricting is to combine areas of common interest, and this year's redistricting process has fallen short by that measure.

"I'm now in Ward 2, part of the city of Keene and in all these small towns," he said. "Certainly there are a lot of overlapping interests, but there are a lot of interests that are really different and there are a lot of local governmental agencies involved in nine small towns."

Rep. Rebecca Griffin, R-Hillsboro, who chairs the House Redistricting Committee, discussed HB 50 in a Jan. 31 hearing before the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee.

"These districts were developed to meet federal and state constitutional criteria," she said.

A computer program was used to help draw up the maps in a method previously approved by the state Supreme Court, she said.

Griffin rejected the notion that districts were drawn to make seats less politically competitive.

"As to the actual competitiveness, I invite anybody to come to the House floor to predict whether a vote is competitive or can be forecast with any reliability," she said.

But she did not say the maps were void of political considerations.

"There was certainly some consideration of what would be considered partisan factors," Griffin said.

An examination by the ACLU of New Hampshire and performed by the FLO Analytics consulting company, which has an office in Beverly, Mass., found that the House districts in HB 50 will yield a 9 percent increase in GOP-leaning seats. Ward-level returns for the 2020 presidential race were used to analyze partisan leanings.

Devon Chaffee, executive director of ACLU of New Hampshire, said in a May 6 news release that maps of the state's Executive Council, House and Senate, all signed into law by Sununu, do a disservice to voters.

"Gerrymandering our state means that issues with overwhelming public support like abortion access, racial justice, marijuana legalization, and more are at risk of not being fairly represented within the State House, Senate, and Executive Council — and that less popular, more extreme positions are likely to be overrepresented," Chaffee said.

Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, said she's not sure that the new districts in Cheshire County will give an advantage to Republicans, but that they could be unwieldy for those chosen to represent them.

"When a question of something like allocation of school funds comes up, who are you actually representing?" she asked. "Are you representing the interests of Keene or the interests of the small towns, which are very different from the city or the larger towns?"

The 10-day candidate filing period in New Hampshire begins on June 1. The state primary election is Sept. 13 and the general election is on Nov. 8.

Rick Green can be reached at RGreen@KeeneSentinel.com or 603-355-8567