Cross-posted from the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Partisan gerrymandering is facing its long-delayed reckoning. After decades of punting on the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court might finally establish constitutional limits for the most egregious abuses. But even if the Court draws a line in the sand, gerrymandering will continue to frustrate a core principle of our democracy: Voters should select their politicians, not the other way around.
Now more than ever, legislatures and voters must take a stand in support of fair redistricting.
New Hampshire is poised to do just that if the state Senate passes House Bill 706, which would create an independent advisory redistricting commission in a refreshing show of bipartisan support. It must, and should, win the approval of both parties in the legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
New Hampshire isn’t alone in trying to reform the redistricting process. A groundswell of support for fair representation led voters in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah to overwhelmingly approve reforms in 2018 to change the way political maps are drawn.
But New Hampshire stands out from the pack. All the other states have ballot initiative processes that allowed citizens to sidestep the legislature or bring lawmakers to negotiate. In New Hampshire, elected leaders from both parties willingly came to the table and joined their constituents to fight for fair maps. HB 706 was crafted by a broad coalition of lawmakers, voters, and activists working side by side since last fall.
And not a moment too soon. Over the years, gerrymandering has only gotten worse. Enabled by increasingly sophisticated data and technology, politicians and their consultants have drawn contorted maps with surgical precision to ensure their party stays in power through good and bad election cycles alike.
It is an issue that should rise above partisan politics and in New Hampshire, so far, it has. HB 706 sailed through the legislature — the House committee voted 20-0 to recommend the bill. And the Senate committee followed suit with a 5-0 tally.
This collaborative effort in the state has led to a strong policy. The bill puts citizens — not politicians — in charge of drawing federal, state, and county district lines. And the new process ensures that voters’ needs — not politicians’ — will dictate redistricting choices. In its final amended form, the proposal effectively marries New Hampshire values with national best practices.
Under this new bill, all communities in the Granite State will be represented and heard when districts are drawn. The 15 citizen commissioners will be politically and geographically diverse. And robust public oversight and participation has been baked into every step of the process.
There will be no more closed-door meetings with political operatives seeking to maximize political advantage. Instead, the commission will actively seek community input through hearings and an online comment portal. All commission business will be conducted in open meetings accessible to the public. All redistricting communications and documents will be available for inspection. And, when final plans are submitted to the legislature, the commission will release a report that measures the maps against external metrics, including the new, prioritized guidelines.
Under these rules, commissioners will have clear objectives instructing how districts should be drawn when they put pen to paper. Towns will be kept whole. Communities with shared identities and concerns will be preserved. Partisan and racial gerrymandering will be prohibited. The upshot, of course, is the commission-drawn map will enable voters to choose their elected officials.
At the Brennan Center, we study how all 50 states draw their districts and the problems that gerrymandering creates. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are designs and practices that have been proven to work. The strength of HB 706 is that it builds on lessons learned around the country.
If passed, the proposal can bring about significant collateral benefits. The public should see drastic improvements in transparency and accountability. Voters should feel more connected to their representatives. Elected officials, likewise, should see more compact districts that make it easier to campaign, connect with constituents and legislate according to their needs.
But the positives go beyond improvements in public confidence and politics. HB 706 advances a process that produces better outcomes.
Studies have shown that redistricting commissions increase the number of competitive elections and that commission-drawn maps hold up better in court than those drawn by legislators.
This is why redistricting reform is so crucial. New Hampshire has shown the country that it is possible to craft meaningful bipartisan solutions. And, if the Senate and Gov. Sununu agree, having fair districts in the Granite State will not merely be a possible outcome, it will be the norm.
By passing HB 706, New Hampshire would set a new national model for eliminating gerrymandering.
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